In past seasons, when Justin Verlander struggled throughout the month of April, there would always be one start where fans knew that things were starting to turn around. It was always obvious, too. In 2011, for instance, he no-hit the Toronto Blue Jays on May 7. The year prior, he held the Los Angeles Angels to one run in 8 1/3 innings. In 2009, it was a nine-strikeout, seven shutout inning performance against the New York Yankees.
Verlander's last start, in which he struck out 10 Cleveland Indians hitters in seven innings, felt like those past instances. Aside from a leadoff home run by Carlos Santana and an opposite field shot from Marlon Byrd, Verlander looked like his old self, holding the Tribe to four hits and a pair of walks. While his offense hung him out to dry, Verlander's outing was very encouraging for the rest of the season.
Now he gets to face the Oakland A's, who have struggled against Verlander in the past. Tigers and A's fans alike remember the two ALDS Game 5 showdowns -- including a 2013 version involving both of these starters -- in which Verlander stymied the A's offense, and the regular season matchups have occurred in similar fashion. In 16 career starts against Oakland, Verlander owns a 2.51 ERA and has limited their offense to a .614 OPS.
With ace Sonny Gray opposing him, the Tigers will need Verlander to be at his best again. Can Detroit get back in the win column on Wednesday?
Oakland Athletics (11-10) at Detroit Tigers (9-10)
Time/Place: 7:10 p.m., Comerica Park
SB Nation blog: Athletics Nation
Media: Fox Sports Detroit, MLB.TV, Tigers Radio Network
Pitching Matchup: RHP Sonny Gray (3-1, 2.73 ERA) vs. RHP Justin Verlander (1-2, 5.79 ERA)
The Tigers got a taste of what Sonny Gray is capable of earlier than most teams. Gray's scoreless performance in Game 2 of the 2013 ALDS was a continuation of what he had done down the stretch that season, but the stage and stakes were much bigger. Gray eventually bowed out to the Tigers lineup, giving up three runs in a Game 5 start, but there was no question he was the real deal.
Two full seasons later, this is still the case. Gray has quietly dominated out west, holding opponents to a 2.91 ERA and 3.46 FIP while logging back-to-back 200-inning seasons. He finished third in the 2015 AL Cy Young voting with a 2.73 ERA and 1.08 WHIP, and is on a short list of candidates that could finish even higher this year.
Gray's numbers through his first four starts of 2016 mirror his 2015 statistics, save for one component: his walk rate. Gray has issued 11 walks in 26 1/3 innings, a large increase over last season's 7.1 percent walk rate. This isn't necessarily a one-start blip, either; he has given up at least three walks in three of his four starts. He was prone to bouts of wildness last year -- he had eight such starts in 2015, including a seven (!) walk outing on May 3 -- but could easily turn it around anytime he takes the mound.
Hitter to fear: Billy Butler (.405/.468/.536 in 94 plate appearances)
Hitter to fail: Jed Lowrie (.100/.143/.150 in 21 plate appearances)
The current A's roster has combined for 55 hits in 199 at-bats against Verlander, a .276 batting average. Billy Butler has 34 of those hits. If you remove Butler from the equation, the rest of the A's roster is 21-for-115, a .183 average. We all know about Butler's dominance over Verlander -- he has actually fallen off his torrid pace after going 4-for-16 in 2014 -- but that should balance out elsewhere in the lineup. Josh Reddick is hitting .174, Jed Lowrie is at .100, and poor Stephen Vogt is an abysmal 1-for-14 with six strikeouts.
Runs could be hard to come by in this game, especially with how these offenses have been performing. The A's are only scoring 3.52 runs per game this season, the fourth-lowest total in the American League. Meanwhile, the Tigers have been limited to 31 runs in their previous 11 games, an abysmal 2.82 runs per game. Both Verlander and Gray are capable of shutting down an opposing offense in any given start, and both have excellent numbers against the opposition in this matchup. If one team can squeak out an early lead, that might be enough to take home the 'W.'
Verlander shines again but the Tigers bats go missing.
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