Last Monday, the Tigers arrived in Boston for a three-game set against the Red Sox, fresh off a pair of walk-off losses to the sad sack White Sox the day before. They split the series in Chicago, but it felt worse than that -- the Tigers squandered winnable games, and the losses brought their post-All-Star record to an even .500. Any momentum they had gained from winning a series in Kansas City was gone, and questions were beginning to be raised about the team's decision to either stand pat or buy small at the trade deadline.
What a difference a sweep can make.
The Red Sox were trending in the opposite direction, having posted a 13-5 record in July. They sat in control of the first Wild Card spot and were poised to overtake the Orioles in the AL East. The Tigers, meanwhile, sat four games out of the second wild card spot, and a distant six games behind the Indians. The three home losses knocked the Red Sox from arm's reach of their division to a hair from losing their Wild Card position. Now the Astros are right on their heels, and the Tigers aren't far behind. If the Tigers can carry last week's success through this weekend, their playoff chances will look much brighter come Monday's trade deadline.
The Astros come to town 23-9 over the last six weeks, boasting the league's best pitching staff. The Tigers are hoping Matt Boyd can kick the series off with a win, as a looming Dallas Keuchel-Mike Pelfrey matchup on Sunday afternoon doesn't look too promising.
Houston Astros (55-46) at Detroit Tigers (54-48)
Time/Place: 7:10 p.m., Comerica Park
SB Nation blog: Crawfish Boxes
Media: Fox Sports Detroit, MLB.TV, Tigers Radio Network
Pitching Matchup: RHP Collin McHugh (7-6, 4.18 ERA) vs. LHP Matt Boyd (1-2, 4.63 ERA)
Often overshadowed by rotation-mates Dallas Keuchel and Lance McCullers, you'd be excused if you didn't notice Collin McHugh putting up 9.4 fWAR since 2014, or that he ranked eighth in Cy Young voting last season. He had a few up-and-down months to start the season, but settled in nicely around mid-June, posting a 2.49 ERA and 3.67 FIP in his last seven starts.
McHugh works in the low 90s with a combination of cutters and four-seam fastballs, supplemented with a big 12-6 curveball in the mid-70s. He'll occasionally mix in a changeup against left-handed hitters and, lately, a sinker against righties, but he doesn't have any significant splits. Look for him to work up in the zone with the fastball and down and away with the cutter. When he gets to two strikes he loves to drop a curveball in the dirt, but he's not afraid to throw it in any count.
The last time we saw Matt Boyd, he was getting yanked in the fifth inning after only 78 pitches. Normally, that's a very bad thing, but in this case it was mostly because Boyd's start was interrupted by a rain delay that lasted over an hour. He allowed one earned run in his brief time on the mound, which is a solid outing considering the circumstances. Boyd has shown renewed effectiveness since he was recalled to replace Daniel Norris three weeks ago, posting a 1.17 ERA and 2.95 FIP in three starts.
Tigers hitter to fear: Miguel Cabrera (.500/.556/.750 in nine plate appearances)
Tigers hitter to fail: Ian Kinsler (.100/.100/.100 in 10 plate appearances)
Boyd has only faced the Astros once, a game last August in which the Astros won a walkoff single from Jose Altuve. McHugh faced the Tigers twice last season, and again early this season. His two starts in 2015 were solid: despite going winless, he allowed a 2.57 ERA over 14 innings. But the Tigers got to him back in April, when manager A.J. Hinch tried to milk a sixth inning out of him and got burned (sound familiar?) by a patented go-ahead home run from Jarrod Saltalamacchia. Cabrera recorded two of his four hits, and Kinsler got his first and only hit off McHugh in that game.
The Tigers are lucky to miss McCullers in this series, but they will still face a tough pitching trio this weekend. While we're still a long way from "must-win" territory, taking another series against a Wild Card contender would be an enormous boost heading into August. With a rough pitching matchup on Sunday, the Tigers may need to jump all over McHugh tonight if they want to win the series.
Boyd struggles a bit, but the Tigers' offense gets into the Astros' bullpen and manages to score enough to extend the win streak.