Detroit Tigers (30-20) at Seattle Mariners (26-26)
Time/Place: 10:10 p.m., Safeco Field
SB Nation blog: Lookout Landing
Pitching Matchup: RHP Justin Verlander (5-4, 4.04 ERA) vs. RHP Hisashi Iwakuma (3-1, 2.39 ERA)
Hisashi Iwakuma has quietly been a steal of an investment for the Mariners since arriving from Japan in 2012. He was dynamite when moved to the rotation in July that year, allowing a 2.65 ERA in 16 starts. He was just as dominant last season, posting a 2.66 ERA in 219 2/3 innings. His ERA has consistently outperformed his FIP since he arrived in Seattle, but a low walk rate and high ground ball rate help keep opposing offenses in check. He has also shown the ability to get strikeouts when needed -- he has fanned 7.29 batters per nine innings in his MLB career -- and possesses a devastating splitter that generates whiffs at a near 20% clip.
Iwakuma did not make his first start of 2014 until May 3rd after a finger injury sidelined him for the first month of the season. Since then, he hasn't quite been the same pitcher, but his ERA has not suffered. He is only striking out 5.73 batters per nine innings thanks to an 8.2% whiff rate and is benefitting from a .236 BABIP. His current walk rate -- he has two walks in 37 2/3 innings -- is unsustainable, and more hits will start to fall in at some point. This doesn't mean that he's living on borrowed time by any means. His fastball velocity is down a tick, and he doesn't seem to be getting the same bite on his splitter that he had in 2013. As he continues to recover from that finger injury, there is no reason to suspect that he won't continue being the four-win pitcher he was last year.
Speaking of recovering from injuries, I went into great detail about Justin Verlander's problems after he was torched -- again -- in his last start. Verlander owns an 8.31 ERA in his last three starts and has allowed 28 hits in 17 1/3 innings during that span. Opposing batters have a .989 OPS during this stretch, which is a hair lower than the .996 OPS Victor Martinez has this season. Simply put, we haven't seen the real Justin Verlander lately. I still believe that this is a mechanical issue stemming from his offseason surgery that should work itself out, but it doesn't mean that we should not be concerned about his ability to get hitters out this evening.
Verlander has pitched well against the Mariners in his career, holding them to a .628 OPS and 3.38 ERA in 17 career starts. He owns a decision in every one of those starts, but only has a 9-8 record to show for his trouble. For instance, he was 0-2 against them last season but had a 3.21 ERA in 14 innings. His opponent this evening was part of the problem, though. Both of Verlander's starts against the M's in 2013 came against Iwakuma. The Tigers were shut out both times.
Hitter to fear: Justin Smoak (.400/.500/1.000 in 12 plate appearances)
Hitter to fail: Michael Saunders (.176/.176/.235 in 17 plate appearances)
Verlander has not had much trouble with the Mariners' lineup during his career -- though, to be fair, neither have many other pitchers. Justin Smoak and Kyle Seager have had quite a bit of success in limited action, however. Smoak has a pair of home runs in 12 plate appearances, while Seager has doubled twice in six at-bats. Seager was the one that struck the decisive blow in last April's pitching duel between Verlander and Iwakuma, hitting an RBI double to break a scoreless tie. Catcher John Buck has also homered twice off Verlander, but is just 8-for-32 overall. On the other end of the spectrum, Robinson Cano has had a particularly tough time dealing with the Tigers' ace. He is hitting just .184/.216/.265 with three extra base hits (no home runs) in 51 plate appearances.
For all of the doom and gloom surrounding the Tigers during their abysmal stretch last week, the Oakland series should be considered a success. They split a road series with arguably the best team in the American League and got the starting rotation back on track (to a point). Thanks to the rubble around them, they still hold a 4 1/2 game lead in the AL Central, the largest divisional lead in the league. Tonight, they have their work cut out for them. Iwakuma was dominant against them last season -- he only allowed seven hits in 14 innings -- and the Tigers don't hit ground ball pitchers particularly well. They will likely need Verlander to be the #MustSeeJV of old in order to keep pace with Seattle's second ace.
The Tigers score a run against Iwakuma tonight.