Game 29 Preview: Tigers at Astros

USA TODAY Sports

The Tigers will look to win their third straight game tonight against the Houston Astros. Hopefully they won't need a comeback this time around.

Detroit Tigers (17-11) at Houston Astros (8-22)

Time/Place: 7:10 p.m., Minute Maid Park

SB Nation blog: Crawfish Boxes

Media: Fox Sports Detroit, MLB.TV, Tigers Radio Network

Pitching Matchup: RHP Max Scherzer (3-0, 4.02 ERA) vs. RHP Lucas Harrell (3-2, 3.60 ERA)

Harrell pitched into the seventh inning in his last start, allowing one run on eight hits against the New York Yankees. The Astros offense staked him to a 3-0 lead before he even took the mound and scored nine runs in the first five inning. Harrell took advantage by attacking the strike zone with abandon, challenging the Yankees lineup with two-seam fastball after two-seam fastball. The Yankees had baserunners in all but one of Harrell's innings, but the Astros defense turned four double plays. This has become the norm with Harrell, who leads the majors with nine double plays induced in 2013.

As you might expect, Harrell relies on inducing weak contact to get ground ball outs. He is more successful than even Rick Porcello in this regard, inducing a whopping 59% ground ball rate so far in 2013. This is where the two-seamer comes into play. Harrell throws it roughly two-thirds of the time in any count and roughly 75% of the time at the beginning of an at-bat. This can get him into trouble, though. Opposing hitters are six-for-10 when swinging at the first pitch against him this season, and hit .375/.365/.575 on the first pitch against Harrell last season. On a related note, the Tigers hit .348/.357/.550 as a team on the first pitch last season. If Harrell can spot his fastball well and/or use more off-speed pitches in early counts, he can keep the Tigers off balance. If he leaves the fastball up, it could be a very short night for him.

Here's where the series starts to get fun. We have heard all about the Astros' propensity for strikeouts during the first two games, but other than a surprising seven strikeout effort from Porcello in the first game, we haven't seen a lot of strikeouts from the Houston lineup. Enter Max Scherzer, who is tenth in all of baseball with 46 strikeouts. The catch? All nine guys listed above him have made six starts. Yu Darvish's league leading 58 strikeouts might be in danger tonight with Scherzer facing an Astros lineup that leads the majors with a 12.3% swinging strike percentage. Scherzer's slider and changeup both continue to be untouchable; both pitches have induced whiff rates above 22% so far this season. Calling double digit strikeouts for Max tonight isn't much of a stretch.

Playing down to the competition

Popular belief is that the Tigers have trouble beating bad teams, instead "playing up" to the competition when facing good teams, but letting their guard down against teams with sub-.500 records. With recent late-season flubs that cost the Tigers two division titles -- against the Kansas City Royals, notably -- the narrative carried some weight to it. Recently? Not even close. From 2010-2012, the Tigers were a whopping 165-125 against teams that finished the regular season at or below .500.

There is one caveat to this theory, however. Take away the Seattle Mariners, who have actually owned the Tigers recently, and the Tigers' record against sub-.500 clubs is a staggering 157-109. Their record against good teams over that same time period? A respectable 99-97. Still, make no mistake: the Tigers have done their damage against inferior competition in recent years.

Outlook

I don't like how the Tigers match up with Harrell, especially with how stagnant the bats have looked so far in this series. The Tigers will get runners on base with ease tonight, but the combination of Harrell's two-seamer, the Astros' solid infield defense, and the Tigers' lack of speed, this could be the perfect storm for a number of rally-killing double play balls. They will probably come out swinging to avoid the 0-1 and 0-2 counts that Harrell likes to get into, but if they don't pound him early it could be a very long and frustrating night.

Meanwhile, Scherzer could strike out 15 Astros and I wouldn't be surprised whatsoever.

Prediction

Harrell pitches longer than Scherzer, but Max gets his fourth win of the year.

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