Houston Astros (27-15) at Detroit Tigers (25-17)
Time/Place: 7:08 p.m., Comerica Park
SB Nation blog: Crawfish Boxes
Pitching Matchup: RHP Collin McHugh (5-1, 4.09 ERA) vs. RHP Alfredo Simon (4-2, 3.04 ERA)
Collin McHugh's career got off to a rough start. Selected by the New York Mets in the 18th round of the 2008 draft, McHugh slowly worked his way through their farm system. Despite pitching for three years at Berry College in Georgia, McHugh took another four seasons to work his way up to the major leagues. He made his MLB debut on August 23, 2012, and threw seven shutout innings with nine strikeouts against the Colorado Rockies. From there, things went south, McHugh gave up 21 runs in just 14 1/3 innings that September, and wasn't much better in 2013. He was traded to the Rockies in June 2013, but had a 9.95 ERA in four starts.
The Astros picked up McHugh off waivers in December 2013 and gave him a few games at Triple-A Oklahoma City to get his feet wet. After a relatively nondescript April in the minors, McHugh was called up to join Houston's rotation. Like with the Mets, his Astros debut was a smashing success. He struck out 12 Seattle Mariners hitters in 6 2/3 innings, allowing just three hits. Unlike his time with the Mets, he kept pitching well. He gave up one run in 8 2/3 innings in his next start, and held opponents to a 2.80 ERA through May. The only thing that slowed him down was a finger injury, which sent him to the disabled list for a few weeks in July. After that? McHugh went 7-1 with a 2.12 ERA and .557 OPS allowed in his final 11 starts of the season.
McHugh's ERA isn't quite as impressive this season, but that is largely due to one bad start. He gave up seven earned runs in 4 2/3 innings against the red-hot San Francisco Giants on May 12, his lone defeat of the season. The Astros have won each of his other seven starts, in part because he works deep into the game. McHugh has pitched at least seven innings in half of his starts this season, and only has two outings with more than three runs allowed. His strikeout rate has dropped from the impressive 25.4 percent rate he posted in 2014, but he is still fanning batters at a 21 percent clip. To compensate, he has lowered his walk rate to just 4.8 percent, and has been throwing first-pitch strikes 62 percent of the time.
After pointing out reasons why Alfredo Simon's 2015 season could actually be for real prior to his last start, his ERA seemed to hang in the balance in the bottom of the third inning. Simon had allowed a triple, a sharp single, and two other hard-hit balls before walking Matt Holliday. With one run already in during the inning, the Cardinals were one swing of the bat away from breaking open a three-run lead. Instead, Simon coaxed a groundout back to the mound from Jhonny Peralta and navigated his way through three more innings, allowing just one more run. He was unfortunate to get the loss, but it was his seventh start (out of eight) with three runs or fewer allowed, matching his excellent start to the 2014 season.
Hitter to fear: Luis Valbuena (.231/.375/.538 in 16 plate appearances)
Hitter to fail: Colby Rasmus (.250/.250/.500 in 4 plate appearances)
Simon has not seen much of the Astros throughout his career, totaling just 9 1/3 innings in four relief appearances. He has faced seven of their position players previously, but only third baseman Luis Valbuena has more than four plate appearances. Valbuena, a former member of the Chicago Cubs, got his licks in when he and Simon were divisional rivals. In 16 plate appearances, Valbuena has reached base six times, including a double and a home run. No one else has homered off Simon previously, but Jose Altuve, Colby Rasmus, and Evan Gattis have all doubled in limited opportunities.
In years past, it has seemed like the Tigers' offense has struggled with pitchers who mix in a lot of off-speed pitches. McHugh certainly fits that bill, as he throws his fastball just 27 percent of the time (down from 38 percent last season). This season, however, the Tigers have had fits with fastball-happy righthanders. McHugh doesn't possess the heavy two-seamer of someone like Gerrit Cole, Kyle Gibson, or Jimmy Nelson, instead using a four-seamer as his primary fastball. He has been reluctant to pitch inside to both lefties and righties during his time with the Astros, so the Tigers should look to the opposite field, especially against Houston's shift-heavy defense.
McHugh continues to pitch well and the Astros even the series.
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