The Detroit Tigers and Seattle Mariners have had very different fortunes over the past decade. The Tigers have enjoyed arguably their most successful stretch in club history, winning four division titles and appearing in two World Series. They have won more games than any team in baseball since 2011, an impressive feat in any era.
Meanwhile, the Mariners have not appeared in the postseason since 2001. They have just three winning seasons in the past 12 years, including an 87-75 campaign in 2014 that saw them finish one game behind the Oakland Athletics for the second AL Wild Card spot. After enduring a decade of disappointment and incompetence, Mariners fans were ecstatic just to have meaningful baseball in their city in September.
Despite their differences, these two clubs and fanbases share a similar sentiment in 2015. The Tigers, who were once again viewed by many as potential World Series contenders, have endured injuries, poor pitching performances, and a rash of ill-timed double plays to a 41-40 record, six games behind the Kansas City Royals in the AL Central. The Mariners have likewise seen a talented lineup sputter, resulting in just 278 runs scored, the second-worst total in the American League. At 38-44, they are nine games out of first place in the AL West, a division that was theirs for the taking at the beginning of the year.
This matchup could have been a playoff preview, one rife with narratives about how the teams were constructed in each other's image. The Mariners have a solid pitching staff complete with the monstrous rotation Dave Dombrowski has always coveted, ranking sixth in the AL with a 3.69 team ERA. Meanwhile, the Tigers have all of the right-handed power Jack Zduriencik could ever dream of, buoying an offense that has climbed to sixth in the AL with 354 runs scored.
Instead, this series will likely be about the respective shortcomings on either side. The Mariners' offensive struggles are documented above, punctuated by a league-worst .230 batting average and .291 on-base percentage. The Tigers have struggled to get teams out, allowing a 4.15 ERA that is the third-highest in the AL. Their pitching issues were put on full display last week, as they allowed 41 runs on 76 hits in six games.
Could this week mark a turnaround for one of these teams as they begin a playoff push? It's possible. The Tigers are only 1 1/2 games out of the second wild card spot, and the Mariners' fate could easily turn if Robinson Cano heats up.
SB Nation blog: Lookout Landing
Game One: Monday, 10:10 p.m., Fox Sports Detroit
Pitching Matchup: RHP Alfredo Simon (7-5, 3.94 ERA) vs. RHP Hisashi Iwakuma (0-1, 6.61 ERA)
Having put up 6.9 WAR in a Mariners uniform over the past two seasons, Hisashi Iwakuma is one of the most underrated pitchers in baseball. The 34-year-old righthander has already created plenty of surplus value on his three-year, $20 million contract, and the M's were banking on him and Felix Hernandez spearheading the top of a dominant rotation in 2015. Unfortunately, Iwakuma's back has not cooperated. Iwakuma was placed on the disabled list with a lat strain after just three starts this season, and has not pitched for the Mariners since. He had a very un-Iwakuma-like 6.61 ERA and 6.27 FIP in 16 1/3 innings before going on the shelf, and it's possible that his injury was causing his struggles on the mound.
When he's on, Iwakuma is one of the best pitchers in the American League. He posted a 2.66 ERA in 219 2/3 innings in 2013, finishing third in the AL Cy Young Award voting behind Max Scherzer and Yu Darvish. Iwakuma's ERA bounced back to 3.52 after a subpar finish to 2014, but he has held steady with a 3.36 FIP and 5.38 strikeout-to-walk ratio over the past two years. Iwakuma's fastball doesn't get much higher than 90-91 miles per hour, but had one of baseball's highest first-pitch strike percentages last season. Getting ahead early in the count lets him get to his splitter, which is a true weapon. Opponents whiffed on the splitter 19.8 percent of the time last season and pounded it into the ground two-thirds of the time they made contact. So, it's no wonder they had a .477 OPS after an 0-1 count. If he keeps the ball down in the zone, he's extremely tough to beat.
Game Two: Tuesday, 10:10 p.m., Fox Sports Detroit
Pitching Matchup: LHP Kyle Ryan (1-2, 4.55 ERA) vs. RHP Taijuan Walker (7-6, 4.34 ERA)
The Tigers don't have to face Felix Hernandez in this series, but a night against Taijuan Walker might be just as frustrating for the Detroit offense. Walker's win-loss record and ERA seem harmless, but he has been on a roll lately after a rocky start. In his last seven outings, Walker is 6-1 with a 1.58 ERA. He has 51 strikeouts to just three walks during that stretch, a span of 48 1/3 innings. A consensus top-10 prospect in all of baseball for the past two years, Walker is showing Mariners fans why the team was so hesitant to part with him whenever trade rumors have circled around the Pacific Northwest. His 3.46 strikeout-to-walk ratio this season actually tops that of King Felix (3.21).
The reason for all the hype surrounding Walker is his incredible stuff. His fastball has averaged 95.2 miles per hour this season while inducing a 10.6 percent whiff rate. He relies heavily on his heater, throwing it 68.4 percent of the time. He has touched 98 with the fastball at times, but his velocity has trended downward slightly since the beginning of the season. This doesn't necessarily spell doom, though. In fact, Walker is actually throwing his fastball more often now than he was earlier in the year. Like Iwakuma, Walker's splitter is his go-to out pitch. He has used it almost exclusively as a lone secondary pitch in recent starts, but with a whiff rate above 18 percent, it's hard to blame him for simplifying things.
Game Three: Wednesday, 3:40 p.m., Fox Sports Detroit, MLB Network
Pitching Matchup: RHP Anibal Sanchez (7-7, 4.65 ERA) vs. LHP J.A. Happ (4-5, 3.93 ERA)
A lot of people scoffed when the Mariners traded outfielder Michael Saunders to the Toronto Blue Jays for J.A. Happ last offseason, but M's general manager Jack Zduriencik is getting the last laugh. Saunders has appeared in just nine games for the Blue Jays this season thanks to a myriad of injuries -- Saunders is no stranger to the disabled list, unfortunately -- while Happ has accumulated a surprising 1.8 WAR in 16 starts. The WAR total has already matched a career-high for the 32-year-old lefthander, who will be a free agent after the season. Saunders still has a year of club control remaining before he hits free agency, but is a potential non-tender candidate if he can't get back on the field before season's end.
The transition to Seattle has agreed with Happ, who had spent his entire career pitching in bandboxes prior to 2015. His walk and home run rates have improved dramatically from recent years, and the forgiving confines of Safeco Field are a big reason for his success. He has a 2.08 ERA at home this season, where he has allowed just three home runs in 43 1/3 innings. Things have not gone as well on the road, where he has allowed a 5.59 ERA in nine starts. Opponents have a higher batting average and on-base percentage against him this year than they did in 2014, but better location and an improved pop-up rate have more than helped offset the damage in the power department.
Hitter to fear: Nelson Cruz (.304/.364/.554 in 332 plate appearances)
Hitter to fail: Mike Zunino (.162/.229/.307 in 251 plate appearances)
There are five Mariners hitters with an OPS+ above 100, but Nelson Cruz has largely been a one-man band this season. Cruz has not cooled off from his 40-homer season with the Baltimore Orioles last year, adding 21 home runs to his tally in 2015. With Robinson Cano scuffling along at .248/.289/.363, it's a wonder that Cruz only has five intentional walks on the year. Instead of Cano, the lefty bat to be reckoned with in the Mariners' lineup has belonged to Seth Smith, who is hitting .257/.327/.459 in 248 plate appearances. Kyle Seager is slightly off his usual pace, hitting .256/.313/.433 with 12 home runs, and will need to pick things up if he wants to break the 4.0 WAR barrier for the third consecutive season.
Editor's Note: SB Nation's partner FanDuel is hosting a $100,000 one-day fantasy baseball league today. It's $3 to join and first place wins $8,000. Enter now!