Monday was not a good day for the Detroit Tigers. No, nobody got hurt. Nor did they lose a game; if anything, off days are good for this roster so heavily reliant on its top players to perform at a high level. But each of the Tigers’ closest competitors in the AL playoff picture — the Indians, Orioles, Red Sox, Mariners, and Astros — all won their games. As things stand on Tuesday morning, the Tigers are three games back in the AL Wild Card race and 7 1⁄2 games behind the Indians in the AL Central.
The Tigers still have plenty of time to control their own destiny in this playoff race. If they put together enough wins over the next six weeks, they will catch anyone in their crosshairs. However, to do so, they need to avoid stretches like they had over the past two weeks. Injuries played a huge role in that skid — Jose Iglesias appears to be ready to return — but so did poor performance from the offense and bullpen.
While a few games with the last-place Twins seem like a good time to make up ground, this is far from a guaranteed series win. The Twins have been tearing the cover off the ball of late, and are scoring nearly as many runs per game this season (4.53) as the Tigers (4.60). They are 24-22 since July 1, a stat that looked even better before they lost nine of their last 12 games. Plus, they have a history of beating the Tigers in the most annoying ways possible.
Can Anibal Sanchez and the Tigers start their short road trip off with a win?
Detroit Tigers (65-59) at Minnesota Twins (49-75)
Time/Place: 8:10 p.m., Target Field
SB Nation blog: Twinkie Town
Media: Fox Sports Detroit, MLB.TV, Tigers Radio Network
Pitching Matchup: RHP Anibal Sanchez (6-12, 5.94 ERA) vs. RHP Kyle Gibson (5-7, 4.90 ERA)
Kyle Gibson has never been much of a strikeout pitcher. He has just 352 strikeouts to his name in over 500 career innings, and his 16.0 percent career strikeout rate would look very much at home if this were the 1960s.
However, Gibson has made do in the modern game by inducing a high ground ball rate and limiting home runs, two skills that have deteriorated slightly in 2016. His ground ball rate has dropped just under 50 percent for the first time in his career — he was at 53.4 percent last season — and he is allowing 1.25 home runs per nine innings this year, double the rate he managed in 2014. The result? A 4.90 ERA and 4.64 FIP, both much higher than the solid numbers he posted in 2014 and 2015.
It’s not easy to decipher exactly what has changed with Gibson, but signs point to his fastball being the biggest problem. His velocity has dropped off slightly since 2014 and 2015, and he is not locating down in the zone quite as well as in years past. Opponents are hitting .500 (!) against his four-seam fastball, and a robust .293 with a .451 slugging average against his two-seamer, which he throws over 40 percent of the time. While the batting average has always been relatively high on his two-seamer, the uptick in power has been problematic for the 28-year-old righthander.
Hitter to fear: Danny Santana (.429/.429/.429 in 14 plate appearances)
Hitter to fail: Brian Dozier (.087/.160/.087 in 25 plate appearances)
No matter how good or bad Anibal Sanchez’s numbers have looked against the rest of baseball, one thing has remained constant: a healthy dominance of the Twins. Sanchez has a 2.49 ERA and 3.32 strikeout-to-walk ratio in his career against Minnesota, including a dominant 10-strikeout performance on July 19. The current roster is batting just .242/.291/.282 in 135 plate appearances against Sanchez. Only Danny Santana and Kurt Suzuki have had any semblance of success, though young talents like Miguel Sano and Max Kepler haven’t seen much of the veteran righthander.
I’m still not sure what has fueled Anibal Sanchez’s resurgence — my current guesses include improved fastball command and an impressive array of voodoo dolls — but it could not have come at a better time for the Tigers. With three different starters hitting the disabled list over the past two months and Michael Fulmer nearing the end of his innings-limit leash, Sanchez’s hot streak has been absolutely vital for a Tigers team fighting for its playoff life. If he can maintain that strikeout touch (39 punchouts in his last 37 innings) and his hold over the feisty Twins lineup, the Tigers may just be able to keep pace with their red-hot playoff competition.
The Tigers win a wild series opener after a bullpen gaffe or two.
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