Here’s a quiz for you: which teams are currently closest to the Detroit Tigers in the American League Wild Card race? The Boston Red Sox are an easy guess, as they and the Tigers have been neck-and-neck for a couple weeks now. The Houston Astros are also in the mix, though they have been falling back a bit since the Tigers swept them at Comerica Park in late July.
Between Boston and Houston are the Seattle Mariners, one of the bigger surprises of the season to those who haven’t been paying attention. The M’s have quietly gone about their business this year, but a 5-2 start in August has vaulted them into second place in the AL West.
An even bigger surprise is how Seattle has gotten here. Their pitching staff is still better than average in terms of ERA, but their offense has carried the load for most of the year. As a team, the Mariners have a 108 wRC+, which ranks second in the American League behind the Red Sox. They have hit 156 home runs this season, which is already the fifth-highest mark for a Mariners team during the current playoff drought.
They won’t have it easy, though, with Michael Fulmer and Justin Verlander set to pitch in this series. Can Fulmer get the Tigers started with a win on Monday?
Detroit Tigers (61-50) at Seattle Mariners (57-53)
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 Michael Fulmer (9-2, 2.42 ERA) vs. RHP Hisashi Iwakuma (12-7, 3.99 ERA)
At some point in the not-too-distant past, Hisashi Iwakuma looked like he was all but done as a quality major league starter. He struggled for parts of 2015, but finished the season with a flourish, limiting opponents to a 2.17 ERA with a Kuma-like 43:7 strikeout-to-walk ratio in his final six starts. The final result was another typical Iwakuma season: a 3.54 ERA and 5.29 strikeout-to-walk ratio in 129 2/3 innings.
After an offseason that saw him lose out on a lucrative contract with the Los Angeles Dodgers when he failed a physical, Iwakuma again got off to a shaky start in 2016. He posted an ERA in the mid-4’s for most of the first half, and topped out at 4.45 after a rough outing at Comerica Park on June 22. The Tigers battered him for five runs on 11 hits in 4 2/3 innings, resulting in his sixth loss of the season.
Since then, Iwakuma has mostly been nails. He has a 2.95 ERA in his last seven starts, and the Mariners are 6-1 in those games. His strikeout rate is still a little under his usual norms (he has 31 punchouts in his last 42 2/3 innings), but he is limiting home runs like prime-Iwakuma again. After the Tigers tagged him for three dingers — the third time a team had accomplished that feat against Iwakuma this year — he has limited opponents to just three homers in his last seven starts.
Tigers hitter to fear: Ian Kinsler (.375/.429/.719 in 35 plate appearances)
Tigers hitter to fail: Justin Upton (.167/.167/.167 in 6 plate appearances)
For a team that has seemingly had a lot of trouble with Iwakuma over the years, the Tigers sure do have some impressive individual numbers against the 35-year-old righthander. Ian Kinsler is one of five Tigers with an OPS over 1.000 against Iwakuma in 10 plate appearances or more. Kinsler’s 35 plate appearances are by far the most — the two spent a few years battling one another in the AL West before Kinsler was traded to Detroit — but Miguel Cabrera and Victor Martinez have also done well in not-that-small samples.
Michael Fulmer had another dominant outing in his last start, a win over the Chicago White Sox, but his fastball command still seemed a bit off. He paid for one of his mistakes when Justin Morneau lined a heater into the right field bleachers, but the rest of the White Sox offense could not take advantage. The Mariners’ lineup is better equipped to handle those mistakes, and could make for a short night for Fulmer if his command is not sharper. Worth noting: the M’s made life difficult for the rookie back in June, resulting in one of his shortest outings of the season.
Iwakuma stays hot and the Mariners take the first game of the series.
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