Houston Astros (10-24) at Detroit Tigers (20-9)
Time/Place: 1:08 p.m., Comerica Park
SB Nation blog: The Crawfish Boxes
Pitching Matchup: LHP Dallas Keuchel (2-2, 3.96 ERA) vs. LHP Drew Smyly (2-1, 2.45 ERA)
Dallas Keuchel was knocked around in a pair of outings against the Tigers last season, allowing nine runs (eight earned) in 10 innings of work. He was tagged with four earned runs in a four inning relief appearance on May 2nd, then allowed five runs in a start at Comerica Park 13 days later. The Astros actually won the game Keuchel started, their only victory over the Tigers in 2013. Overall, Keuchel was an important part of the Astros' rotation last year. He led the team with 153 2/3 innings pitched and posted their rotation's second-best strikeout rate. His 5.15 ERA was slightly higher than the team's overall 4.79 ERA, but Keuchel's peripheral numbers suggest that he was getting a bit unlucky. He put up a decent 2.37 strikeout-to-walk ratio and his 17.4% home run per fly ball rate was due to regress. His 3.58 xFIP was a better estimate of how Keuchel actually performed in 2013.
Keuchel's ERA has started to creep above his FIP and xFIP in 2014, but the mid-3s xFIP from last season seems to be prophetic. Keuchel has upped his strikeout rate, lowered his walk rate, and benefitted from some BABIP regression to put up a 3.36 FIP and 0.7 fWAR in his first six starts. More importantly for the Astros, he is eating innings again. He has pitched six innings or more in each of his past five starts, holding opponents to two runs or fewer in three of them. The home run rate hasn't regressed much -- and being that he's a groundball artist, most fly balls are the result of mistakes, which tend to fly very far -- but it hasn't hurt him either, as his 3.96 ERA is currently well below the league average.
Nine days off between starts? The long layoff was no big deal for Drew Smyly, who shut down the Kansas City Royals across seven shutout innings. After a shaky first start, Smyly has looked very comfortable working through a lineup two and three times. He has yet to allow a hit during his third turn through the batting order, and is currently working on a 12-inning scoreless streak. Opposing batters are hitting .143 with a .200 on-base percentage with runners in scoring position. Unfortunately, both of the hits Smyly has allowed in these situations were home runs.
Hitter to fear: Alex Presley (.500/.500/.500 in 2 plate appearances)
Hitter to fail: Everyone else
Alex Presley is one of five batters with a career plate appearance against Drew Smyly, and the only one to face Smyly a second time. He is also the only Astro with a hit off the Tigers' lefty. Smyly threw 2 2/3 scoreless innings against the Astros last season, picking up a win on May 3rd. Ian Kinsler has had plenty of experience against Dallas Keuchel, racking up five hits (including a homer) in 15 at-bats with a pair of walks.
The Tigers have found a way to pick up victories in close games this season, winning seven of their first nine one-run affairs. Some of this can be attributed to a combination of luck, small sample sizes, and the baseball gods repaying us for last season's awful record in one-run games, but part of it is by design. For example, last night's seventh inning battle between Brad Peacock and Rajai Davis -- who was on first base -- would never have happened in 2013. The next inning, Don Kelly swiped second base to put yet another runner in scoring position, where Tigers hitters have feasted in 2014. The Tigers are hitting .290 with a 114 wRC+ with runners in scoring position this season, both of which lead the American League.
Smyly continues his hot run and the Tigers pull off the four game sweep.