Minnesota Twins (15-18) at Detroit Tigers (20-10)
Time/Place: 7:08 p.m., Comerica Park
SB Nation blog: Twinkie Town
Pitching Matchup: RHP Phil Hughes (3-1, 4.72 ERA) vs. RHP Justin Verlander (4-1, 2.68 ERA)
The Phil Hughes experiment got off to a slow start, but it seems to be paying off now. Hughes' ERA is still elevated, but he is 3-0 with a 2.79 ERA in his last three starts, including a victory over the Tigers on April 26th. He has logged 19 1/3 innings during this stretch with a 12:1 strikeout-to-walk ratio, lowering his season-long FIP to 3.54. As expected, Hughes' home run rate has dropped considerably. He has given up four dingers on the year, two of which came in his first start of the season at U.S. Cellular Field.
Hughes' improvements go beyond a simple change in scenery, however. He has upped his swinging strike rate to 9.1%, his highest figure since 2009. Hughes is also pound the strike zone from the get-go, throwing a whopping 69.9% of first pitch strikes, the fourth-highest rate in baseball. He is throwing more strikes -- his 59% zone percentage is by far a career-best -- and generating more swings, especially outside of the strike zone. His biggest improvement might be against lefties, who are scraping by with a .617 OPS against him this season. Hughes has transitioned his slider into a cutter, which he has been able to command better against lefties, resulting in a .200 batting average off that pitch.
Justin Verlander was magnificent for six innings in his last start, holding the Kansas City Royals without a hit until Billy Butler (of course) singled to break up the no-hit bid in the bottom of the sixth inning. Verlander's command went array in the seventh inning, however, and he allowed three runs on three hits, including a double and a triple. He also uncorked a wild pitch and gave up a sacrifice fly on a hard line drive. Late inning hiccup aside, Verlander has pitched at least seven innings in five of his seven starts this season and still has yet to allow more than three runs in an outing. His walk rate is still elevated, but he has at least seven strikeouts in three of his last four starts.
Hitter to fear: Joe Mauer (.371/.473/.581 in 74 plate appearances)
Hitter to fail: Trevor Plouffe (.167/.167/.208 in 24 plate appearances)
Of the 54 walks that Justin Verlander has issued to Twins hitters in 27 career starts, Joe Mauer has 12 of them. He also has three home runs off Verlander for a .581 slugging average, more than 100 points above his career mark. That's about all the success that the Twins have had against the Tigers' ace, however. Jason Kubel is the only other Twin hitting above .250 in 10 or more plate appearances. In his career, Verlander is 14-7 with a 3.12 ERA and 3.15 strikeout-to-walk ratio against the Twins. On the Tigers' side, it has been feast or famine against Phil Hughes. Miguel Cabrera and Torii Hunter are both hitting above .400, while everyone else is under .300. Austin Jackson is the only other Tigers hitter with an OPS above .700 against Hughes.
While Hughes' career numbers against the Tigers are less-than-stellar, he seems to enjoy pitching at Comerica Park. He has held the Tigers to a .638 OPS and 3.22 ERA in six regular season starts at Comerica, and has tallied 35 strikeouts to seven walks. To compare, Verlander has held opponents to a .636 OPS and 3.06 ERA at Comerica Park in his career, though the strikeout-to-walk ratio is not quite as gaudy. This one has the makings of a pitcher's duel written all over it, a scenario that the Tigers have excelled in this season in part thanks to their league-best 28 stolen bases. If Hughes can match Verlander inning-for-inning, the Twins' bullpen gives them a big edge.
The Tigers push a few runs across against Hughes and Verlander makes the lead stand up for his fifth win.