Entering series against the Boston Red Sox and Houston Astros, the Detroit Tigers were probably hoping to just go .500 and keep themselves in wild card contention. Few expected them to have the chance to sweep both opponents, but they can do just that on Sunday afternoon. Though the Tigers remain 4 1/2 games behind the Cleveland Indians in the AL Central, they sit just one game back of the second wild card spot.
Even with this strong week, the Tigers may choose to stand pat through Monday's trade deadline. Instead of overspending on a starting pitcher, the front office could look to upgrade the rotation through more internal methods. Sepcifically, two huge assets in Jordan Zimmermann and Daniel Norris are close to finally returning to Detroit. Neither has pitched for the Tigers since the All-Star break, but both have made rehab starts in preparation for their return. Where they slot into the rotation is yet to be decided, but their inclusion will certainly be an upgrade to the club.
Getting two strong pitchers back is a boost in itself, but it could be doubly beneficial for the Tigers. It is no secret that Mike Pelfrey and Anibal Sanchez have endured many struggles this season, and any start taken away from them should be helpful. How manager Brad Ausmus and the Tigers choose to handle a rotation with everybody healthy will be something to watch, but hopefully the return of Zimmermann and Norris will bring about some long-overdue changes.
Can the Tigers find a way to to win their sixth game in a row?
Houston Astros (55-48) at Detroit Tigers (56-48)
Time/Place: 1:10 p.m., Comerica Park
SB Nation blog: The Crawfish Boxes
Media: Fox Sports Detroit, MLB.TV, Tigers Radio Network
Pitching Matchup: LHP Dallas Keuchel (6-10, 4.57 ERA) vs. RHP Mike Pelfrey (3-9, 4.98 ERA)
The first half of 2016 is not how Dallas Keuchel envisioned following up his 2015 AL Cy Young Award. After dominating hitters last season with a 2.48 ERA and 2.91 FIP, the same results have been much harder to come by one year later. A drop in strikeouts and increase in walks has certainly not helped his cause; Keuchel's 18.1 percent K-BB% in 2015 has fallen to 13.3 percent this season. Likewise, his 0.66 home runs allowed per nine innings has jumped up to 1.01 HR/9.
Some of Keuchel's struggles can be seen in his two favorite pitches. Around 70 percent of all pitches he throws are either his sinker or his slider, and both have been less impactful for him this season. Compared to 2015, both pitches have lost velocity and both are generating less whiffs. In 2015, opponents hit .233 against the sinker; this season, they are hitting .312. Batters hit just .106 against the slider last year, but have slightly raised that average to .156 in 2016.
However, Keuchel's first three starts in the second half look like a positive sign. Though his strikeouts are still down from where he would like, Keuchel allowed just 15 hits and five runs in his last three appearances, averaging seven innings an outing. His sinker generated a .233 average and his slider just .105, and opponents hit only .203 against him overall. While these starts came against the Oakland Athletics and New York Yankees, the Astros are hoping this is a sign of things to come.
Hitter to fear: Colby Rasmus (.400/.500/.700 in 12 plate appearances)
Hitter to fail: Jose Altuve (.222/.364/.222 in 11 plate appearances)
Pelfrey faced the Astros in the second week of the season, giving up just one run and five hits in six innings. Houston struggled early on, but has been one of the top offenses since the All-Star break. While Pelfrey is a groundball pitcher, the Astros have hit the ball in the air as much as any team as of late and have one of the top home run per fly ball rates. Houston may be prone to striking out, do not expect Pelfrey to take advantage of their aggressiveness; his 3.92 strikeouts per nine innings ranks 94th out of 94 qualified starters this season.
Since the end of May, Keuchel owns a 3.39 ERA and has struck out 7.79 batters per nine innings. His last three starts have been even better, and while he may have regressed from last season, he is still a great pitcher. The Tigers will need to find some way to score against him with Pelfrey on the mound. Three of Pelfrey's last six starts have been fairly decent, but the other three have been not so pretty, so it is hard to know what exactly to expect. However, the Astros do not seem like a good matchup for him, so it could get ugly.
Keuchel has a solid outing, but the Tigers still squeak out the victory.