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Tigers looking to finish strong vs. Twins before All-Star break

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Sitting 2 1/2 games behind the Twins in the AL Central standings, the Tigers have a chance to make up ground before the All-Star break.

Peter G. Aiken-USA TODAY Sports

The Detroit Tigers have owned their AL Central Division opponents over the past four seasons, but they have made a special effort to humiliate their closest competition during each of their division title runs. In 2011*, they went 12-6 against the second place Cleveland Indians. They were 12-6 against the Chicago White Sox in 2012, then dominated the Indians with a 15-4 record in 2013. Last season, they dispatched the Kansas City Royals with ease, winning 13-of-19 meetings.

This season, the Tigers have found themselves in an unusual position, but they are still beating their closest foes. The Tigers have a 26-14 record against AL Central opponents this season, including a 7-2 record against the Minnesota Twins, who sit 2 1/2 games ahead of them in the standings. If the season ended today, the Twins would be one of the AL's two wild card teams. While it's a bit too early to worry about playoff positioning, the Tigers will be keeping a close eye on their relative distance to both the wild card spots and the Royals, who are 4 1/2 games clear of Minnesota atop the division.

This weekend's series with the Twins is an important one for the Tigers, especially with the way they have been hitting lately. Since the closed-door meeting Brad Ausmus held with the team on June 20, the Tigers have scored 101 runs in 17 games, or nearly six runs per game. This includes 44 runs in their last six games without Miguel Cabrera. The bats have come alive at the right time, and a solid weekend in Minneapolis could help spring them up the standings prior to the All-Star break.

Meanwhile, the Twins have managed to keep their heads above water in a topsy-turvy AL Central. They were a torrid 20-7 in May, but dropped 17-of-28 games played in June. They are coming off a three-game sweep of the Baltimore Orioles after splitting their previous 18 games, including a four-game road set against the Royals. An above average starting rotation has buoyed a pedestrian offense and league average bullpen, allowing a 3.82 ERA on the season despite the second-lowest strikeout rate in the American League. Their offense has been stagnant after a hot May, averaging just 3.6 runs per game since June 1.

*The Tigers were an incredible 50-22 (!) against the AL Central in 2011, a big reason why they won the division by 15 games.

SB Nation blog: Twinkie Town

Game One: Thursday, 8:10 p.m., Fox Sports Detroit

Pitching Matchup: LHP David Price (8-2, 2.54 ERA) vs. RHP Mike Pelfrey (5-5, 3.94 ERA)

Pitcher GS IP K/9 BB/9 HR/9 WHIP FIP SIERA fWAR
Price 17 117.0 8.23 1.69 0.69 1.13 2.89 3.39 3.0
Pelfrey 16 91.1 4.43 3.15 0.49 1.49 4.09 4.58 0.7

The Tigers have seen both sides of Mike Pelfrey in two matchups this season. In their first meeting, Pelfrey worked both sides of the plate with his fastball like it was his job (well, it is, but you know), and held them to two runs on three hits in seven innings. In their second matchup, Pelfrey wasn't quite so sharp, and the Tigers tagged him for five runs on 10 hits in 4 2/3 innings. This has been the story of 2015 for Pelfrey. He has held opponents to two runs or fewer in 10 of his 17 starts, but has given up five runs or more on three occasions, including a pair of eight-run stinkers. Overall, he has been very good, but he gets lit up if he can't work the corners.

Mike Pelfrey heat map

Part of the reason for the gigantic blood-red swath in the chart above is Pelfrey's stuff, or lack thereof. He has been heavily reliant on his two-seam fastball, which averages a healthy 94 miles per hour. This is a stark improvement from the past couple years, when he was having some arm trouble. He is also having a lot of success with his splitter, which has morphed into his primary offspeed pitch to both righties and lefties. Opponents are hitting .193 off the splitter and pounding it into the ground 55 percent of the time, a healthy combination for a pitcher with Pelfrey's abysmal strikeout rate. This is great when he gets ahead (which he has done 60 percent of the time), but spells disaster when he falls behind in the count.

Game Two: Friday, 8:10 p.m., Fox Sports Detroit

Pitching Matchup: RHP Justin Verlander (0-2, 6.75 ERA) vs. RHP Ervin Santana (0-0, 2.25 ERA)

Pitcher GS IP K/9 BB/9 HR/9 WHIP FIP SIERA fWAR
Verlander 4 22.2 4.76 3.97 2.38 1.59 7.05 5.42 -0.5
Santana 1 8.0 9.00 3.38 1.13 0.75 3.83 3.45 0.1

The Twins signed Ervin Santana to a team-record $55 million contract during the offseason in hopes that he would be the rotation-stabilizing presence that Ricky Nolasco was not in 2014. Instead, Santana was busted for PED usage and served an 80-game suspension before ever taking the mound in a Twins uniform. Santana's 2015 debut came against the Kansas City Royals on July 5, and his return to Kauffman Stadium went a lot like his 2013 run in a Royals uniform. Santana held the Royals to two runs on three hits in eight innings, striking out eight.

As he is wont to do, Santana allowed a home run in his start. He is unlikely to match his career-worst total of 39 home runs allowed (in 2012) at this point in the season, but the home run ball has always been an issue for Santana. He has given up a whopping 246 taters in his 10-plus year career, including at least 21 in eight consecutive seasons. He has had a few down seasons sprinkled in, but has otherwise been able to keep his home run totals palatable thanks to low walk and hit rates.

Game Three: Saturday, 4:05 p.m., Fox Sports 1

Pitching Matchup: RHP Alfredo Simon (8-5, 4.18 ERA) vs. RHP Phil Hughes (7-6, 4.19 ERA)

Pitcher GS IP K/9 BB/9 HR/9 WHIP FIP SIERA fWAR
Simon 16 97.0 6.87 3.06 0.93 1.39 3.95 4.27 1.1
Hughes 17 111.2 5.40 0.89 1.69 1.24 4.65 4.26 0.5

Speaking of home run troubles, Phil Hughes' previous dinger nightmares have returned with a vengeance in 2015. Last season, Hughes was able to keep things in the park, allowing 16 home runs in 209 2/3 innings. He held opponents to a 3.52 ERA and posted the best strikeout-to-walk ratio ever, earning him a five-year, $58 million contract extension last offseason. His elevated home run totals in New York were blamed on Yankee Stadium, which has claimed more than one pitcher as a victim in years past.

Instead, it's Hughes. He has allowed 21 home runs in 111 2/3 innings this season, already surpassing last season's homer total in just over half the innings. He has also allowed 127 hits on the year, the highest total in the major leagues. Hughes has been able to stall some of the added traffic on the basepaths, stranding 79.4 percent of runners for the season. The real red flag is his strikeout rate, which has dropped from 21.8 percent in 2014 to 14.4 percent this season. This could be due to a drop in velocity, but it could also just be bad pitch location, which Tigers fans are plenty familiar with these days.

Game Four: Sunday, 2:10 p.m., Fox Sports Detroit

Pitching Matchup: TBD vs. RHP Kyle Gibson (7-6, 3.04 ERA)

Pitcher GS IP K/9 BB/9 HR/9 WHIP FIP SIERA fWAR
TBD - - - - - - - - -
Gibson 17 106.2 6.08 2.87 0.93 1.24 4.14 4.02 0.9

Last time the Tigers faced off against Kyle Gibson, I pointed out his awful strikeout-to-walk ratio as a reason why his ERA should not be believed. Then, he went out and held the Tigers to a single run in seven innings with six strikeouts. Dumb Rob strikes again (though the Tigers still won). Gibson's strikeout-to-walk ratio is better now -- it's positive, for one -- as he is quietly putting together a breakout season. In his last 11 starts, the 27-year-old right hander has a 3.07 ERA and a 1.18 WHIP. He has 61 strikeouts to 19 walks in 70 1/3 innings, a solid 3.21 strikeout-to-walk ratio.

The key to Gibson's success is a continued emphasis on pitch location. He was showing signs of this earlier in the year, keeping the ball down in the strike zone to induce ground balls at a high rate. This down-and-away approach has continued as his strikeout rate has perked up, leading to a lot of efficient outings. Since allowing six runs on eight hits against the Tigers in his first start of the year, Gibson has worked 16 consecutive outings of five innings or longer, including five of at least seven innings. His defense has already turned 19 double plays behind him, nearly matching his total from 2014.

The Tigers have not yet announced their starter for Sunday, but signs point towards Shane Greene rejoining the Tigers roster later this week. Greene was removed after just three innings in his start for Triple-A Toledo on Wednesday, saving his arm for potential work with the Tigers this weekend. He threw 37 pitches in all, but would be starting on short rest if he takes the mound for the Tigers on Sunday. Buck Farmer is already with the Tigers, and could also make the start.

Hitter to fear: Brian Dozier (.258/.331/.512 in 369 plate appearances)
Hitter to fail: Danny Santana (.217/.239/.292 in 224 plate appearances)

Brian Dozier sure has come a long way since his major league debut in 2012. The Twins' shortstop of the future at the time, Dozier batted just .234/.271/.332 in 340 plate appearances during his rookie season. He also committed 15 errors in just over 700 innings at shortstop, which encouraged the Twins to move him to second base prior to the 2013 season. Since then, Dozier has remade his plate approach, drawing more walks and pulling everything in sight. He is batting .246/.330/.437 with 58 home runs in roughly 1700 plate appearances over the past two-plus seasons, and is third among all MLB second basemen this season with 3.1 WAR.

★★★

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