With less than 30 percent of the schedule left to play, the Detroit Tigers find themselves narrowly behind the Cleveland Indians in the AL Central race and neck and neck with the Boston Red Sox for the second wild card spot. Needless to say, every game from here on out is crucial with very little margin for error. In times like these, teams need to be able to rely on their star players.
Thankfully, this is where Justin Verlander thrives. He has dominantly silenced his doubters with an excellent season, and he has been particularly sharp since the All-Star break. In five starts since then, Verlander ranks seventh among qualified starters with a 1.75 ERA, fifth with 26.1 percent K-BB%, and first with 2.24 FIP and 1.3 fWAR. Few pitchers have been this good.
In addition to keeping runners from crossing the plate, Verlander has been eating up innings. In each of these five starts he went at least six innings, and he has averaged over seven innings per start during this stretch. With the starting rotation lacking depth and question marks pouring out of the bullpen, Verlander is a key part of keeping the staff intact. Do not expect him to slow down either- after averaging 105.9 pitches per start in the first half of the season, he has averaged over 110 pitches over his last five outings.
The Mariners’ offense is no pushover, as they have been one of the best all season. Will Verlander help the Tigers leave Seattle on a positive note?
Detroit Tigers (61-52) at Seattle Mariners (59-53)
Time/Place: 10:10 p.m., Safeco Field
SB Nation blog: Lookout Landing
Media: Fox Sports Detroit, MLB.TV, Tigers Radio Network
Pitching Matchup: RHP Justin Verlander (12-6, 3.52 ERA) vs. RHP Felix Hernandez (6-4, 3.55 ERA)
Like the resurgence of Verlander, the Mariners are hoping that Felix Hernandez can bounce back as well. After a dominant stretch from 2009 to 2014 that saw him rank second in ERA, fourth in FIP, and third in fWAR, King Felix has looked much less punishing in the last year and a half. The struggles have come across the board for him, with a decrease in strikeouts, increase in walks, and sizeable jump in homers.
While Verlander has seen a small uptick in velocity over the past couple of seasons, Hernandez has been moving in the opposite direction. Relatedly, his K-BB% has fallen from 22.1 percent just two seasons ago to 9.3 percent in 2016. A calf injury that took him out for two months in the middle of the season certainly did not help, but his numbers both before and after his time on the disabled list still show a much different pitcher than the once Cy Young Award winner.
Even with diminished stuff, King Felix can still be a valuable leader in the Seattle rotation. The strikeouts are likely down for good, but pitchers of his caliber find ways to adjust. His last trip out looked destined for disaster after the Los Angeles Angels scored three runs without recording an out to start the game, but Hernandez settled down to allow just one more hit and one more run over the next seven frames. Perhaps he can build off those results against the Tigers.
Hitter to fear: Nelson Cruz (.216/.237/.486 in 38 plate appearances)
Hitter to fail: Seth Smith (.148/.324/.259 in 34 plate appearances)
Verlander has faced the Mariners 19 times in his career, owning a 3.35 ERA with 8.47 K/9. He gave up six hits and two runs in their most recent matchup in June, pitching seven innings and striking out five. He has performed fairly well against most of the current Seattle hitters, but Nelson Cruz will always been a name that causes discomfort for Tigers fans. Though Cruz has hit just .179 against Verlander in the regular season, he has hit .333 with a pair of painful homers in the playoffs against him.
Facing a good offense like the Mariners and a big name -- regardless of recent performance -- in King Felix seems like a great time to throw your ace out there, and that is what the Tigers will get to do on Wednesday night. Verlander has not allowed more than two runs in a start since June while Hernandez has allowed 15 in his last four appearances. The Tigers offense can be hit or miss, but this is a game where they should be able to score some runs.
Verlander dazzles again and the bats light it up against Hernandez.