It's weird to think of Mike Pelfrey as a stopper, but the Detroit Tigers might need him to be one on Friday. Pelfrey is coming off the best start of his season, a 6 1/3 inning affair in which he limited the Tampa Bay Rays to just one run on six hits and three walks. It was one of the few starts this season in which Pelfrey was deserving of a win, but the Tigers were unable to rally for the win until after Pelfrey had exited the game.
Meanwhile, the Tigers are a bit over a barrel in this series. They lost on Thursday with Justin Verlander on the mound, which was easily their best chance to steal a road win in a tough environment. Now, they are staring down a weekend series against the vaunted Blue Jays offense with Pelfrey, Matt Boyd, and Anibal Sanchez as their presumptive starting pitchers.
Not good, as the kids say.
Of the three, Pelfrey probably has the best chance of shutting down this Blue Jays offense. He has induced ground balls at a 52 percent rate this season, and generates almost two grounders for every fly ball. As noted mastermind GWilson pointed out in Thursday's game preview, the Jays "rank just 13th in the American League with a .229 average on ground balls but have the 5th highest OPS on fly balls." Pelfrey has been a bit homer prone this season, but if he can keep the ball down in the zone, the Tigers might be able to squeak out a win.
Detroit Tigers (45-41) at Toronto Blue Jays (49-39)
Time/Place: 7:07 p.m., Rogers Centre
SB Nation blog: Bluebird Banter
Media: Fox Sports Detroit, MLB.TV, Tigers Radio Network
Pitching Matchup: RHP Mike Pelfrey (2-7, 4.78 ERA) vs. LHP J.A. Happ (11-3, 3.54 ERA)
Blue Jays lefty J.A. Happ has had an up-and-down season in 2016, but things have been a little more down lately. The Tigers roughed him up for six runs on six hits in an early June matchup, and he has had a couple of other iffy outings since then. If you include that start in Detroit, Happ has allowed four runs or more in three of his last six starts, and has a 4.50 ERA in those outings.
However, run support cures all that ails a pitcher, and Happ has gotten it in spades since the Blue Jays left Comerica Park. The Blue Jays have scored 11 runs or more in four of his last five starts, and put up a five-spot in the fifth one. To no one's surprise, Happ has won each of those games, boosting his record to a robust 11-3. He hasn't been entirely helpless either, tossing a couple gems during this stretch including an 11-strikeout performance against the Cleveland Indians five days ago.
Overall, Happ is enjoying a solid season, but hasn't regained the strikeout touch he developed last year under pitching coach Ray Searage in Pittsburgh. Happ struck out over a batter per inning in 11 starts for the Pirates last summer, but has dropped off to a strikeout rate of 18.4 percent -- just a touch lower than his 19.6 percent career rate -- in 2016. His command is better than earlier in his career, though, resulting in a solid 2.58 strikeout-to-walk ratio. He has also limited right-handed hitters to a .303 wOBA.
Hitter to fear: Troy Tulowitzki (.350/.409/.550 in 22 plate appearances)
Hitter to fail: Edwin Encarnacion (.154/.400/.385 in 20 plate appearances)
Pelfrey doesn't have much experience against the Blue Jays -- and this roster, in particular -- but the few starts he has made have produced inconsistent results. On one hand, he is 1-1 with a 4.96 ERA and 1.41 WHIP in three starts. He has 10 strikeouts to 10 walks in those 16 1/3 innings, a very Pelfrey-esque ratio. On a more positive note, Pelfrey has limited the Jays to hitting just .232 with a .339 slugging average. The .348 on-base percentage is a bit of a problem, though. Troy Tulowitzki and Edwin Encarnacion are the only Toronto hitters who have faced Pelfrey more than five times.
If there were a game -- or series of games, if you want to look ahead -- where the Tigers offense could really stand to bail out their pitching staff, this is it. Their four-game sweep in Tampa is buoying a solid road trip right now, but that 5-3 record could easily turn ugly if the Blue Jays offense has its way with this Tigers pitching staff over the weekend. The fast track that is the Rogers Centre infield isn't the most forgiving surface for a ground ball pitcher like Pelfrey, but it's much better than letting this gauntlet of a lineup lift the ball into the air. If Pelfrey limits home runs, the Tigers should be in decent shape.
Take the over.
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