There aren't many opportunities in baseball where teams are "playing with house money," as the saying goes. Every game is important, especially in a division race as tight as the one shaping up in the AL Central. The Tigers have already won seven games on their nine-game homestand, and have pulled within three games of the division-leading Chicago White Sox. That the Tigers are still in fourth place shows how hotly contested this race will be.
House money is what these Tigers are dealing with today, though, if you think that way. Phillies ace Aaron Nola is a bear of a matchup for any team, while Anibal Sanchez is still figuring out his pitching delivery. The Tigers were at a disadvantage in two of their three pitching matchups in this series -- and most other games, frankly -- yet have already clinched a series win.
A win in this game would give the Tigers victories in nine of their last 10 contests, a nice remedy to the 1-11 stretch that immediately preceded this run. The schedule gets much harder after this, with the first west coast trip of the season looming. Can Sanchez and the Tigers cap off an 8-1 homestand?
Philadelphia Phillies (25-21) at Detroit Tigers (23-22)
Time/Place: 1:10 p.m., Comerica Park
SB Nation blog: The Good Phight
Media: Fox Sports Detroit, MLB.TV, Tigers Radio Network
Pitching Matchup: RHP Aaron Nola (3-3, 2.85 ERA) vs. RHP Anibal Sanchez (3-5, 6.23 ERA)
"Hey, Rob," you may be saying*, "who is this Aaron Nola and what does he throw?" A bit of research tells us that Nola's fastball doesn't have the premium velocity of Monday starter Vincent Velasquez, but he induces a lot of ground balls with a solid sinker. He also throws a curveball that -- wait, what's that?
Nola, a first round pick in the 2014 MLB draft, has rocketed to the major leagues because of this curveball, an outstanding secondary pitch that has been lethal against both right- and left-handed hitters in his young career. He is throwing the bender nearly one-third of the time in 2016, up from a 25 percent usage rate in 2015. Its timing is fairly predictable -- get ahead with the fastball, then go to the curveball -- but opponents are still hitting just .136 with a .190 slugging average off it in his 22 major league starts. And when they aren't swinging and missing 21 percent of the time (a very high rate for a curveball), they're pounding it into the ground at a 56.7 percent clip.
However, as Jeff Sullivan briefly notes in the aforementioned article, Nola is also pounding the zone with his fastball. He only averages 90-91 miles per hour with the heater, but can ramp it up to the mid-90s in a pinch. When on, he is peppering the lower half of the strike zone to induce weak contact.
*You're probably not saying this but go with it anyway.
Hitter to fear: Ryan Howard (.290/.476/.548 in 42 plate appearances)
Hitter to fail: David Lough (.167/.286/.167 in 8 plate appearances)
Once again, Ryan Howard's excellent career numbers against a Tigers starter come with an asterisk. Howard hasn't even faced Sanchez since 2011, the last time he posted numbers well above average, and was just 5-for-23 with one home run from 2009 to 2011. Carlos Ruiz, the only other Phillie with more than 10 plate appearances against Sanchez, follows the same pattern, though his highs were never as high. Sanchez is a dismal 4-8 with a 4.94 ERA against the Phillies in his career, but they were an offensive juggernaut during his heyday with the Marlins. These days? Not so much.
Only two pitchers have thrown more pitches within the strike zone than Nola this season: Bartolo Colon and Clayton Kershaw. Those two have long enough track records to understand how they have been so successful living in the strike zone that often, but Nola is still a bit of a mystery. Between the number of strikes looking he gets and the lack of swings outside the zone, there may be some speed bumps if his command is spotty.
However, the Tigers have struggled against pitchers with good, looping curveballs like Nola's, and he has shown the acumen to both throw it within the zone and bury it in the dirt. If the Phillies offense can muster some run support against a struggling Sanchez, they may pick up a win.
Sanchez gets into trouble in the middle innings but the Tigers escape with a sweep.
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