The Detroit Tigers won their series in Minnesota which accomplished a few things. It kept them above the competition in the AL Central as their lead over the Cleveland Indians held steady at 4.5 games.
It also showed that while the loss in Kansas City on Wednesday, when "Proven Closer" Jose Valverde coughed up a stunning two-run homer to help blow the game and the series, was a bitter pill to swallow it was not a devastating blow that was going to knock them off course for long. The "hangover" lasted merely until Rick Porcello took the mound on Friday night after Thursday's off-day in Minneapolis.
Austin City Limit-less
Perhaps the best thing to come out of the Minnesota series, besides two victories, was the return of Austin Jackson to the top of the Tigers batting order. While Andy Dirks and Omar Infante did their best to keep the position productive, neither player possesses the overall package to spur the lineup into productivity that Jackson does. Sunday was a great example. Jackson led off the game with solid base hit to set up Torii Hunter's career #300 homer. Three innings later Jackson flexed his muscles by following up Alex Avila's sharp single by taking a PJ Walters' off-speed pitch on a 3-2 count deep into the second deck of Target Field to make the score 4-0. This homer would ultimately be the difference as the Twins could only muster two runs on the day.
Jackson was slumping a bit prior to his DL stint with his balky hamstring possibly contributing to much of that. In the month of April however Jackson was doing his thing at a .286/.355/.393 clip which spurred plenty of rallies that enabled him to score 25 runs for the month. Compare this to Dirks output in the leadoff spot this year and we see a slash-line of .278/.300/.371 with 12 runs in 100 plate appearances. Jackson has been sorely missed and some of the low-scoring tight losses the Tigers have been suffering may start to dry up if Jackson can start to flash last year's form now that he is presumably healthy.
Jackson showed his value on defense as well when he made a nifty running catch for the third out when the Twins got a little frisky in the 8th inning by plating a run and getting the go-ahead run to the plate. If that ball had fallen in things were about to get dicey.
Re-igniting Torii Hunter
Will the return of Jackson also light a fire under Torii Hunter? Besides the homer on Sunday facing the Minnesota club where he hit the first 192 homers of his career, Hunter also clubbed a ground-rule double that padded the Tigers lead in the 9th when he drove home Infante. It is not that one good game foreshadows a productive surge from Hunter but the return of Jackson changes the dynamics at the top of of the order and may be the change of pace that Hunter seems to have needed.
Hunter's bat has been extremely listless in June prior to Jackson's return and the thrill of his hot start back in April has been starting to fade. Hunter seemed to be hitting a lot of holes in the infield when Jackson was on-base in front of him at the start of the season. With other clubs having to respect Jackson's speed, by holding him on first or covering the bag when Jackson was in motion, it probably was opening up some gaps for the ground-ball heavy Hunter to exploit. It will be very interesting to see if that starts to happen a bit more again with Jackson's presence.
Hunter also made a great running catch to help out Porcello on Friday night. That was encouraging to see. A defensive boost was a prime attraction to adding the veteran former Gold Glove outfielder. While Hunter has probably been a plus defensively for the Tigers when compared to the days when Magglio Ordonez or Brennan Boesch were patrolling that yard, he hasn't been immune from some rather bad plays. He has missed some balls at the fence that bounced off his mitt and looked fairly catchable. Hunter has made a small handful of ill-advised throws that have yielded extra-bases and unnecessary runs had he hit his cut-off man or thrown to the correct base. These are plays you would expect from a wild young pup like Avisail Garcia, not an old pro of Hunter's stature.
Anibal Sanchez and Alex Avila injuries
One injury has fans worried. The other probably has many indifferent (or worse, happy....please don't be one of those folks).
Anibal Sanchez and Alex Avila have both been placed on the 15-day Disabled List.
Anibal Sanchez left his start on Saturday after merely recording 11 outs. Jim Leyland initially in the game's aftermath said that Sanchez was healthy but just out of sorts. Then on Sunday it sounded as though he were a bit more worried. Certainly this is a matter of concern.
Sanchez has had shoulder issues in his past however he has thrown approximately 195 innings in each of the last three seasons. It seemed a reasonable gamble on Detroit's part to figure that after showing sustained durability over a three year stretch, the past with the shoulder could be overlooked slightly. However, as we all know, pitchers can break. We do not know if Sanchez is completely broken of course. We'll have to wait for a complete breakdown of the injury. Brace yourselves for the news.
The Tigers appear to be in decent shape now that Sanchez has hit the DL (hopefully for just a rest-n-recovery stint and nothing more). Jose Alvarez could hardly have looked better in his cameo effort against the division rival Indians last Sunday and would probably be given another start or two in the early stages of Sanchez' time off.
The Tigers also kept their "extra" starter this winter by not dealing Rick Porcello as many had felt would be the case. The argument for keeping Porcello and Drew Smyly was basically just for this reason of one of the "Big Four" starters going down for any length of time. With Alvarez being no "sure thing" by any stretch of the imagination, it could very well be that if Sanchez is out for extended time we'll be seeing Drew Smyly being "stretched out" over the next few weeks to assume a role in the rotation.
As for Alex Avila...what terrible timing. On a day where his bat actually looked good with a legit double and a solid line drive single, the long-slumping Avila got smoked by a pitch in the left wrist in the 9th inning. Brayan Pena came on to run and finished the game. It would have been great for Avila to have been able to follow up his good day at the plate with the chance to build on it immediately. But a wild Brian Duensing pitch has intervened.
Bryan Holaday was the easy choice for the Tigers to take Avila's spot. Holaday is having an acceptable year at the plate in Toledo (.259/.317/.386) and he didn't embarrass himself in a 6-game cup-of-coffee appearance last year. The only other catcher on the 40-man roster is Ramon Cabrera and he doesn't seem to have the defensive reputation that the Tigers probably prefer in this situation.
Good Clean Sacs
- Small tactical point. When Leyland pinch hit for Avila on Saturday night with Pena there was two out and nobody on base in the 9th inning facing lefty Closer Glen Perkins. Yes, you want to save your bench if things go to extra innings. However you have Matt Tuiasosopo sitting on the bench with a .470 OBP. The Tigers were down by 4-runs and needed base-runners to extend the game. There wasn't a ton of hope for a rally at this point, but opting for the OBP of Tuiasosopo would have been the better play.
- The Kansas City Royals are the second best team in the AL Central. The standings don't say it yet...but the Royals have young talent that has ceiling left to exploit, they have a solid defense, and their rebuilt rotation is doing a tremendous job in front of a deep bullpen. Run prevention is carrying the Royals as they rally from their horrible slump during May. They recently allowed 3 runs or less for a team record 13 games.
- Miguel Cabrera is in a bit of funk batting .167 over his last 8 games. Are you worried? Yeah, didn't think so.
- The 10-game home stand that kicks off versus Baltimore should be highly entertaining. The Orioles are followed by the Red Sox. These teams reside in the top two spots in the AL East and both pack a punch offensively. The Angels meanwhile come after those two clubs...and while they have struggled for the most part they still bring some premium talent with them. Albert Pujols is starting to show some signs of life and Mike Trout is Mike Trout. The Tigers will be looking for a little payback after getting swept in Anaheim in late April.
- After drawing 35 walks in April and May, Prince Fielder has decided that the month of June is going to be mostly about hitting. Fielder has only drawn two free passes in 14 games this month but his bat has sprung to life with a .362/.377/.603 slash-line in 61 plate appearances. Fielder's surge has been timed nicely to pick up some of the slack from a rare rough patch for Miguel Cabrera.