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Game 104 Preview: Houston Astros at Detroit Tigers

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The Tigers aim to inch closer to the playoffs with Justin Verlander on the mound against Houston.

Bob DeChiara-USA TODAY Sports

If the Detroit Tigers or their fans were on the fence about buying or selling earlier this month, the last week of Tigers baseball has pushed all but the most pessimistic fans into #TeamBuy territory. In the last 10 days, the Tigers have made up three games in the AL Central standings and 2 1/2 games in the wild card hunt, signaling to the front office that this core can compete if a few tweaks are made.

The Tigers have rattled off four consecutive wins over wild card contenders, and have a great chance to add a fifth on Saturday. Justin Verlander has managed an 8-3 record and 2.69 ERA in his last 15 starts, and that includes a stinker of an outing against the Cleveland Indians on June 26. Seventeen of the 56 earned runs Verlander has allowed this season have come against the Tribe, leaving him with a tidy 2.88 ERA and 3.08 in 121 2/3 innings against everyone else.

A win with Verlander on the mound is far from guaranteed, though. The Tigers' offense has disappeared in recent Verlander starts, scoring just 23 total runs in his last seven outings. They have not given him more than four runs of support in a single start since June 16, and have provided three runs or fewer in nine of his 21 starts. Meanwhile, Astro starter Mike Fiers is receiving 6.6 runs of support per start, the third-highest total among qualified AL starters. Something will have to give in this game.

Can Verlander tame the Astros' powerful offense and deliver the Tigers' fifth win in a row?

Houston Astros (55-47) at Detroit Tigers (55-48)

Time/Place: 7:10 p.m., Comerica Park
SB Nation blog: The Crawfish Boxes
Media: Fox Sports Detroit, MLB.TVTigers Radio Network
Pitching Matchup: RHP Mike Fiers (7-4, 4.69 ERA) vs. RHP Justin Verlander (10-6, 3.64 ERA)

Pitcher IP K% BB% FIP fWAR
Fiers 103.2 15.9 5.4 4.77 0.8
Verlander 138.1 25.7 7.0 3.65 2.8

Mike Fiers' 7-4 record doesn't exactly reflect his 4.69 ERA or 4.77 FIP, but as I noted above, Fiers is receiving a boatload of run support this season. He has also been rather inconsistent from start to start; he has limited opponents to two runs or fewer in nine of his 19 starts, and has been blown up for five runs or more in a few others. He also isn't getting very far into games, averaging just 5.5 innings per start (Mike Pelfrey is at 5.3, for comparison).

Fiers' inconsistency is also due to his pitching style. An extreme fly ball pitcher that makes his living at the top of the strike zone, Fiers can get homer-prone at times. He has allowed 17 home runs in 103 2/3 innings, a rate of 1.48 per nine innings that is 10th highest among qualified AL starters. Those homers can come in bunches; the Tigers tagged him for three home runs in their meeting on April 17, and he has given up at least two dingers on three other occasions this season.

Luckily, the Tigers have a pair of splits working in favor in this matchup. Thanks to an excellent changeup, Fiers has always been better against left-handed hitters than righties. This split has gotten worse in 2016, as right-handed batters are hitting .298/.352/.520 off him. This is good enough for an .872 OPS, over 100 points better than what lefties have managed. The Tigers' righty-heavy lineup should negate Fiers' changeup (though he still uses it plenty against them) and force him to use the fastball more. Fiers has also struggled on the road this year, allowing a 6.75 ERA and 1.91 strikeout-to-walk ratio in eight starts away from Minute Maid Park.

Hitter to fear: Jose Altuve (.500/.556/.625 in 9 plate appearances)
Hitter to fail: Carlos Gomez (.118/.167/.176 in 18 plate appearances)

Verlander hasn't had much troubles with the Astros throughout his career, though his overall numbers are likely skewed by those seasons that Houston functioned as a punching bag for the rest of the American League. Still, the Tigers' ace has limited this current Astros roster to a .211 batting average and .291 on-base percentage in 79 plate appearances. George Springer and Tyler White took Verlander deep in their first meeting this season, but he was able to strike out eight in six innings of work. And there will be strikeouts: the Astros have the second-highest strikeout rate and third-highest swinging strike percentage in the American League.

Outlook

While the Tigers have a clear advantage in the starting pitching matchup -- we haven't been able to say that often this year -- this game is far from in the bag. The Astros made a lot of hard contact against Tigers pitching on Friday, and are capable of hitting for power up and down the lineup. Verlander has been more susceptible to the long ball than usual this year, allowing 17 home runs in 138 1/3 innings. If the ball starts carrying, this could quickly turn into a slugfest.

Prediction

Verlander gets his 11th win and the Tigers move ahead of Houston in the wild card standings.

★★★

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