It seems like a recipe for disaster. The Detroit Tigers, who have struggled to score runs all season long, are facing the Oakland Athletics, who have the lowest starting rotation ERA in the American League. Bad offense against good pitching in an era dominated by strikeouts and low run-scoring environments. It feels predictable.
Yet, the Tigers were somehow able to take two of three from the A's last week. The two teams nearly replicated the script from last season's series at O.Co Coliseum, which also began with a puzzling afternoon start on Memorial Day. The Tigers looked hapless in the first game of the series, only to come back and take a pair of one-run games in agonizing fashion. The only thing missing from this year's series -- and this year's Tigers team -- was the bullpen implosion.
This week's series feels different, though. The Tigers won't have David Price around to put the team on his back for seven shutout innings, as he did last Tuesday. They won't avoid A's ace Sonny Gray, who will start opposite Anibal Sanchez on Wednesday. They don't even get the benefit of facing a travel-weary team. In fact, it was the Tigers who arrived into Detroit at 6 a.m. after a Sunday night matchup against the Los Angeles Angels.
The A's have played better of late, winning six of their last nine games. They took three of four from the New York Yankees at home last weekend, bumping them above the 20-win mark as the calendar turned to June. Their offense has been a league average unit, scoring 222 runs, eight more than the Tigers this season. Their rotation has the best ERA in the league and third-best FIP, and their pitching staff has already racked up eight shutouts this season. Their pythagorean win expected record is actually above .500 -- and better than the Tigers -- but a 3-15 record in one-run games has doomed them to a distant last place in the AL West.
In short, don't expect much deviation from last week's matchup. These two teams are much more evenly matched than their records dictate, and Oakland's excellent starting pitching is a quick equalizer. There is always the possibility of the Tigers' bats heating up as the weather does, but a slumping Ian Kinsler and absent Victor Martinez significantly lengthen the odds of a sudden breakout. Pitching and defense will be what wins this series for Detroit, just as it did seven days ago.
SB Nation blog: Athletics Nation
Game 1: Tuesday, 7:08 p.m., Fox Sports Detroit
Pitching Matchup: RHP Kendall Graveman (2-2, 5.79 ERA) vs. RHP Alfredo Simon (5-2, 2.67 ERA)
An eighth round pick out of Mississippi State University in 2013, Kendall Graveman had a Buck Farmer-esque rise through the Toronto Blue Jays' farm system last season. He made 32 appearances across five levels in 2014, including a short 4-2/3 inning stint at the MLB level last September. His spectacular numbers were the big reason for the rapid ascent; Graveman held opponents to a 1.83 ERA in the minor leagues, with a 1.03 WHIP and 3.71 strikeout-to-walk ratio in 167 1/3 innings. His excellent season brought on a lot more hype than he had coming out of college, and he caught the eye of A's general manager Billy Beane.
One of four players the A's received in return for sending Josh Donaldson north of the border, Graveman won a spot in Oakland's rotation with a strong spring. It didn't last long, however. Graveman was roughed up in his first start, allowing eight runs (seven earned) in just 3 1/3 innings. After another rough outing at the end of April, he was sent to the minor leagues. After four starts in the Pacific Coast League -- including a pair of scoreless outings -- Graveman was recalled when Drew Pomeranz was placed on the disabled list. The 24-year-old righthander has looked much more comfortable in his last two starts, allowing three runs in 11 2/3 innings.
Game 2: Wednesday, 7:08 p.m., Fox Sports Detroit
Pitching Matchup: RHP Sonny Gray (6-2, 1.82 ERA) vs. RHP Anibal Sanchez (3-6, 5.75 ERA)
Tigers fans are all too familiar with Sonny Gray, who went toe-to-toe with Justin Verlander in two starts in the 2013 ALDS. While the Tigers ultimately got the better of Gray and the A's, those games served as a coming-out party of sorts for the young righthander. Gray was quietly one of the best pitchers in the American League in 2014, posting a 3.08 ERA and 3.46 FIP in 219 innings. Only 10 pitchers in baseball threw more innings than Gray last year, and only one -- Atlanta's Julio Teheran -- was younger than the then-24-year-old Vanderbilt product.
If that wasn't enough, Gray has taken his game to a new level in 2015. Working through just his second full major league season, Gray has a 1.82 ERA and 2.73 FIP in his first 11 starts. He is one of five American League pitchers with 2.0 WAR, and ranks fourth in the league with 74 innings pitched. Gray has increased his strikeout rate while lowering his walk and home run rates, improving his strikeout-to-walk ratio to 3.30 early on this year. A big reason for that change is an increased reliance on his slider, a pitch that has induced a whopping 29.8 percent whiff rate for Gray this season.
Game 3: Thursday, 1:08 p.m., Fox Sports Detroit
Pitching Matchup: RHP Jesse Hahn (2-5, 3.77 ERA) vs. RHP Shane Greene (4-4, 5.19 ERA)
An otherwise sluggish month of May was made more prosperous when Jesse Hahn shut out the Tigers on May 25. Despite nine scoreless innings to help his numbers, Hahn still finished the month with a 4.30 ERA and 1.27 WHIP, as well as a 1-4 record in six starts. While the scheduling of Hahn's Memorial Day shutout deserves a mention -- why is it the Tigers played a day game out west that Monday? -- he looked as sharp as ever, pounding the lower part of the strike zone with his two-seam fastball and curveball.
Keeping the ball down has been an issue for Hahn this season. His arsenal plays best when he is hitting the lower part of the strike zone and generating ground balls, something he has done 52.3 percent of the time in 2015. On the other hand, he gets int trouble when he leaves the ball up and out over the plate. The majority of hits Hahn has allowed have come when the ball is up, with almost none coming on pitches down in the strike zone.
Hitter to fear: Stephen Vogt (.322/.411/.611 in 180 plate appearances)
Hitter to fail: Sam Fuld (.191/.267/.290 in 147 plate appearances)
The A's have put up some modest offensive numbers for their 20-33 record, but this is not the pesky lineup the Tigers have seen over the past few seasons. The A's rank 11th in the American League with 46 home runs, while their .392 slugging average is merely 10th. Previous A's squads took lots of pitches and did damage in bunches, while this one has had to rely on stringing multiple hits together. Stephen Vogt has been the lynchpin of the order, clubbing 11 home runs and driving in 38 RBI. Only Josh Reddick (seven homers, 31 RBI) has even approached Vogt's run-producing numbers this season. Billy Butler is third on the team with 26 RBI, but his .675 OPS isn't striking much fear into the hearts of opposing pitchers these days.
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