Tampa Bay Rays (38-50) at Detroit Tigers (48-34)
Time/Place: 7:08 p.m., Comerica Park
SB Nation blog: DRaysBay
Pitching Matchup: RHP Alex Cobb (3-6, 4.20 ERA) vs. LHP Drew Smyly (4-7, 3.57 ERA)
Alex Cobb had a big breakout season in 2013, winning 11 games with a 2.76 ERA in 143 1/3 innings. He was particularly dominant down the stretch, allowing a 2.41 ERA in nine regular season starts and tossing 6 2/3 shutout innings in the AL Wild Card game against the Cleveland Indians. Cobb's performance was one of the big reasons why the Rays were among the favorites in the AL East, but 2014 has been a disappointment for both him and the team so far. Cobb only made three starts in April before landing on the disabled list with an oblique strain, and his performance since then has been a bit lacking. He has a 5.16 ERA in eight starts and has not even pitched into the sixth inning in half of them.
Cobb's numbers have taken a step back in 2014, but it's hard to see why. He is only allowing a 15 percent line drive rate and is still forcing hitters to pound the ball into the ground at a 55 percent clip. He is throwing more first pitch strikes and has improved his swinging strike rate by a fair margin. His walk and home run rates are nearly identical to last season. On the surface, nothing should be different, but Cobb's issues arise when runners are on base. Opposing batters are hitting .280/.352/.452 with men on base this season, a far cry from last year's .240/.330/.304. He is stranding under 70% of all baserunners this year, a big reason why his ERA is so much higher than his 3.85 FIP.
Drew Smyly is coming off the shortest start of his career, a 2 1/3 inning affair against the Houston Astros. Smyly's struggles were fairly predictable, given the talented right-handed bats in the Astros' lineup. The first four righties that Smyly faced reached base, and he allowed three doubles to righties on the afternoon. His platoon splits are downright alarming at this point, as righties have an OPS over 500 (!) points higher than lefties. Things should be a bit easier on him this evening, however. The Rays see a platoon advantage in 53% of their plate appearances, well below the AL average of 58%. They are hitting .253/.322/.403 against lefties this season -- just above the league average -- but have a slightly worse OPS against lefty starters.
Hitter to fear: Evan Longoria (1.000/1.000/2.000 in 2 plate appearances)
Hitter to fail: Sean Rodriguez (.000/.000/.000 in 6 plate appearances)
The Rays have not seen much of Smyly, who has just 11 innings in five appearances against them. Only Desmond Jennings, Sean Rodriguez, and Ben Zobrist have more than two plate appearances against the Tigers' lone lefty starter in their respective careers. Cobb has logged a bit more time against the Tigers, allowing a 2.41 ERA in three starts. However, there are signs that a breakout may be in order. Six Tigers hitters have at least six career plate appearances against Cobb; six of them have an OPS above .750, and the seventh is Victor Martinez. He will need to be ready tonight, as Miguel Cabrera has walked four times in 12 plate appearances.
Given Cobb's past success against the Tigers -- he threw 7 2/3 innings of shutout ball at Comerica Park last season -- the onus is on Smyly to keep the offense within striking distance. Cobb has struggled with men on base this season, but has been able to work his way out of trouble against the Tigers in the past. The Rays will miss the presence of Wil Myers in the middle of their order, though he has not hit very well against lefties in 2014. Desmond Jennings and Evan Longoria still present a challenge at the top of the lineup, but if Smyly can keep at least one of them in check, the Tigers should continue their winning ways.
The Tigers starts their homestand 5-0 after a bounce-back performance from Smyly.