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Tigers square off against hot-hitting Toronto Blue Jays

A beleaguered Tigers pitching staff faces a stiff test in the Toronto Blue Jays, who boast baseball's best offense.

Kim Klement-USA TODAY Sports

The Detroit Tigers are coming off a sweep at the hands of the Pittsburgh Pirates, and the numbers aren't pretty. The Tigers pitching staff allowed 22 runs in the three-game series, dropping the team back to .500 once again. The Tigers bullpen has worked 16 1/3 innings in the last three days, including five yesterday when starter Kyle Ryan departed after just four innings.

Now, that tired pitching staff has to deal with the Toronto Blue Jays. The Jays have had one of baseball's more potent lineups in recent years, but, thanks to a couple key offseason acquisitions, they are blowing everyone else out of the water this year. Toronto has scored 441 runs in 81 games, an average of 5.4 per game. The next-best offense in baseball? The New York Yankees, who have scored 368 runs, 73 fewer than the Blue Jays.

This seems like a recipe for disaster, but a comparison with the previous series -- even with a more dangerous opponent -- is one of apples to oranges. The Tigers were relying on their three worst starting pitchers in the previous series, but will have Anibal Sanchez and David Price on the hill this weekend. Justin Verlander, who will start on Sunday, was Detroit's best starter against the Pirates, allowing three runs (two earned) in six innings. If he carries over the later part of his last start to this weekend, the Tigers could be in good shape.

The Tigers offense also deserves a mention, particularly because they're facing a Blue Jays staff that isn't very good. The Jays have the second-worst ERA in the American League at 4.16, and their best starters -- Mark Buehrle and rookie Aaron Sanchez -- are not pitching this weekend (Sanchez is on the disabled list). Meanwhile, the Tigers offense has been better than advertised, scoring 28 runs in their previous six games. We could be in for some long games this weekend if the respective pitching staffs hold true to form.

SB Nation blog: Bluebird Banter

Game One: Friday, 7:08 p.m., Fox Sports Detroit, MLB Network

Pitching Matchup: RHP Drew Hutchison (8-1, 4.99 ERA) vs. RHP Anibal Sanchez (6-7, 4.63 ERA)

Hutchison 16 88.1 8.25 2.65 1.02 1.42 3.77 3.76 1.4
Sanchez 16 105.0 8.14 2.49 1.54 1.18 4.36 3.66 0.8

Last season, Drew Hutchison threw seven shutout innings against the Tigers in a start at Comerica Park on June 3. Hutchison struck out seven and allowed just three hits in a dominant performance, and it goes to show how enigmatic his year was. In his two starts sandwiching that stellar outing, he allowed a combined 10 runs on 13 hits in eight innings. Overall, Hutchison gave up a 4.48 ERA in 184 2/3 innings, but tallied eight starts with eight strikeouts or more en route to a solid 3.07 strikeout-to-walk ratio. Not bad for his first season back from Tommy John surgery.

Hutchison's 3.85 FIP and 3.82 xFIP from last season and young age (he's only 24) suggested that a breakout was in order in 2015. That hasn't happened yet, but Hutchison's peripherals are still strong. His strikeout rate has dipped from 23.2 percent to 20.9 percent, but his FIP is slightly better at 3.77. If anything, the most troubling trend is his inability to work deep into games. Hutchison has only pitched six innings in one start since shutting out the Chicago White Sox on May 25, and just two of his 16 starts have gone seven innings or more. His offense has backed him up in a big way -- he hasn't seen fewer than three runs of support this season -- but he has put a lot of strain on the Blue Jays' bullpen in the process.

Game Two: Saturday, 1:08 p.m., Fox Sports Detroit

Pitching Matchup: RHP R.A. Dickey (3-8, 4.85 ERA) vs. LHP David Price (7-2, 2.62 ERA)

Dickey 16 102.0 5.56 3.53 1.32 1.34 5.11 4.85 0.0
Price 16 110.0 8.18 1.72 0.65 1.12 2.87 3.43 2.8

After a disappointing debut season in Toronto, R.A. Dickey put together a solid 2014 campaign. He held opponents to a 3.71 ERA and 1.23 WHIP in 215 2/3 innings and lowered his home run totals to a respectable figure. However, he saw a slight dip in his strikeout-to-walk ratio, and his 4.32 FIP suggested that he wasn't quite as good as his ERA indicated. His 4.14 xFIP was nearly identical to that of his 2013 season, and he only finished 0.1 WAR better.

Dickey has regressed and then some in 2015, particularly when it comes to striking batters out. Dickey's strikeout rate is down to just 14.4 percent this season, his lowest since he was a member of the Minnesota Twins in 2009. He is still inducing swings and misses at a nine percent clip, but opposing batters are showing much more discipline than they were able to during his heyday with the New York Mets. This has led to another modest increase in his walk rate, the fourth consecutive year it has gone up.

Game Three: Sunday, 1:08 p.m., Fox Sports Detroit, MLB Network

Pitching Matchup: RHP Marco Estrada (5-4, 3.58 ERA) vs. RHP Justin Verlander (0-1, 5.09 ERA)

Estrada 11 75.1 7.65 3.23 1.19 1.15 4.26 4.11 0.6
Verlander 3 17.2 3.57 4.08 2.04 1.53 6.93 5.89 -0.4

After giving up more home runs than any pitcher in baseball last season, Marco Estrada has been a solid if unspectacular addition to the Blue Jays' pitching staff in 2015. He spent all of April in the bullpen, where he allowed a 0.84 ERA with 11 strikeouts in 10 2/3 innings. From May onward, he has been in the starting rotation, where he has a 4.04 ERA. He isn't quite on a strikeout-per-inning pace anymore, but he's fairly close, with 53 punchouts in 64 2/3 frames. Estrada was starting to get on a roll, allowing just one run in 15 2/3 innings across two starts, but a rough outing his last time out quelled that momentum.

Estrada relies heavily on a fastball-changeup combination, with the fastball topping out at just 91-92 miles per hour. He throws his changeup to both righties and lefties, and mixes in an occasional curveball to righthanders. The changeup has been his most effective pitch this year, with opponents batting just .185 in 119 at-bats. Their .220 batting average on Estrada's fastball isn't much better, but eight of the 10 home runs he has allowed have been on the heater.

Hitter to fear: Josh Donaldson (.300/.358/.541 in 356 plate appearances)
Hitter to fail: Jose Reyes (.272/.305/.385 in 229 plate appearances)

It says something when the worst everyday hitter in a team's lineup is still hitting .272 with a .690 OPS. Such is the charmed life the Blue Jays are living these days, as they boast by far the most potent offense in the major leagues. Donaldson is one eight players on the Blue Jays roster with an OPS+ of 120 or higher, and one of four at 135 or higher. He leads the team with 19 home runs, and is second to Jose Bautista with 52 RBI. Edwin Encarnacion is also a member of the 50-RBI club, though his overall numbers pale in comparison to years past. Russell Martin has rebounded from a slow start and is now hitting .262/.353/.489 with 12 home runs and 38 RBI.


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