Game 77 Preview: Tigers at Astros

Kim Klement-USA TODAY Sports

A pitcher's duel may be brewing in Texas. Dallas Keuchel has been one of the big surprises of the 2014 season, while Max Scherzer is still the reigning Cy Young winner despite a rocky June.

Detroit Tigers (43-33) at Houston Astros (35-46)

Time/Place: 4:10 p.m., Minute Maid Park

SB Nation blog: The Crawfish Boxes

Media: Fox Sports Detroit, MLB.TVTigers Radio Network

Pitching Matchup: RHP Max Scherzer (9-3, 3.71 ERA) vs. LHP Dallas Keuchel (8-5, 2.78 ERA)

Pitcher GS IP K/9 BB/9 HR/9 WHIP FIP SIERA fWAR
Scherzer 16 104.1 10.27 2.67 0.95 1.26 3.17 3.10 2.3
Keuchel 15 103.2 7.21 2.26 0.43 1.10 2.99 3.03 2.4

Prior to last night's game, Dallas Keuchel was the only Astros pitcher to have beaten the Tigers in the last two years. He was the winning pitcher in the team's only victory against Detroit last year. Back in May, he held the Tigers to two runs in 7 2/3 innings to salvage a series sweep at Comerica Park this season. That's when things started to take off. He threw a shutout against the Texas Rangers in his next start, then nearly repeated the feat six days later against the Los Angeles Angels. Six days after that, he held the Seattle Mariners to one unearned run in another complete game victory. The final count: three starts, 26 2/3 innings pitched, two earned runs, 21 strikeouts, one walk. His ERA dropped from 3.68 to 2.55 during that stretch.

Things have gone well since then, though not that dominant. Keuchel has a 3.27 ERA in his last five starts, but only 22 strikeouts to 14 walks. This bout of wildness -- particularly the back-to-back starts with four walks -- is surprising for Keuchel. He is only walking 2.26 batters per nine innings this season, slightly above the 1.9 walks per nine innings he posted in five minor league seasons. Despite this recent stretch, he has done an excellent job of limiting the damage by keeping hitters in the ballpark. Since Victor Martinez went deep off him on May 8th, Keuchel has only allowed one home run. Also impressive are his improvements against right-handed hitters. Last season, righties torched Keuchel for an .832 OPS with 15 home runs. This year, those figures are down to .642 and three, respectively, in just over half of the plate appearances.

Like Justin Verlander yesterday, Max Scherzer's last start resulted in him getting revenge against a Cleveland Indians club that torched him in their previous meeting. While he was somewhat inefficient, he held the Tribe to just one run on six hits in six innings with eight strikeouts. It was also a solid bounce-back outing from his disastrous start against the Kansas City Royals five days prior. While his ERA in the month of June is not pretty, he has otherwise been his usual self. He has 37 strikeouts to just seven walks in his last 32 1/3 innings for a 3.16 FIP in June. We're not all the way back to the dominance we saw in April, but Scherzer's peripherals show a major improvement from a rough May.

Hitter to fear: Carlos Corporan (.400/.500/1.600 in 6 plate appearances)
Hitter to fail: Jason Castro (.000/.000/.000 in 6 plate appearances)

Scherzer was untouchable in his start against the Astros in early May, holding them to three hits in eight shutout innings. Toss in a walk and a hit batter, and the Astros only had five baserunners against him, none of which advanced past second base. The Astros had a bit more success against him last year, scoring five runs off him at Comerica Park in their lone victory over the Tigers. One of those runs was courtesy of Carlos Corporan, who has two hits -- both homers -- in five at-bats off Scherzer. His game has been more of the same in 2014, as his .198 ISO is nearly as high as his .210 batting average. I would be surprised if he is not starting behind the plate, as poor Jason Castro has struck out five times in six career at-bats against Scherzer.

Outlook

Another Scherzer start against the Astros means another chance to talk about their swing-and-miss tendencies. The Astros no longer lead baseball in whiff rate, but they're still tops (worst) in the American League at 10.9 percent. Scherzer is tied for third in the AL with an 11.3 percent swinging strike rate. Scherzer also ranks third in the AL with an 82.6 percent contact rate on pitches within the strike zone. The Astros are the worst in baseball at 83 percent. This is a bad recipe for them, and is one reason why Scherzer has a 2.35 ERA and 23 strikeouts in three starts against the Astros since their move to the American League. If the offense can spot him a few runs against Keuchel -- not the easiest task in 2014, to be sure -- we may see the beginning of a new winning streak.

Prediction

The Tigers improve to 7-1 on this road trip in a pitcher's duel that lives up to its billing.

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