The last time we saw the Royals, they swept the Tigers at home by holding them to one run in each of three games. The series dealt a big blow to the Tigers’ playoff hopes, dropping them from 1.5 games out of a Wild Card spot to 3.5 games out. It hurt.
That series was right in the middle of an 18-4 stretch that saw the Royals leapfrog three teams in the Wild Card standings and give them a legitimate shot at the playoffs, again (ugh). On the plus side, they did lose their last two games to the still-somehow-relevant Yankees, albeit by only one run apiece.
Anibal Sanchez pitched a true gem in Game 2 of that Royals series, allowing no runs and only three baserunners across seven innings. It was his best game according to Game Score since his two-hit shutout against the Reds last June, but it got a bit overlooked after formerly lockdown relievers Justin Wilson and Shane Greene coughed up the lead and the game, respectively, in the late innings.
The Tigers are back in a playoff spot — a tie with the Orioles for the second Wild Card — after a 7-2 homestand against mediocre teams. They head out on a six-game road trip featuring some brutal pitching matchups that make three wins seem like a success. If Sanchez can repeat his performance from his last start against the Royals, and the offense can find a way to get to Danny Duffy, the Tigers would alleviate a lot of pressure over the tough trip.
Detroit Tigers (72-61) at Kansas City Royals (69-64)
Time/Place: 8:15 p.m., Kauffman Stadium
SB Nation blog: Royals Review
Media: Fox Sports Detroit, MLB.TV, Tigers Radio Network
Pitching Matchup: RHP Anibal Sanchez (7-13, 5.92 ERA) vs. LHP Danny Duffy (11-2, 3.01 ERA)
Danny Duffy started the season pitching out of the bullpen for the Royals, the same role he held at the end of last season while his team wrapped up the division and went on to win the World Series. He was bumped to the bullpen last fall in favor of Jeremy Guthrie and/or Chris Young, and bumped back into the rotation this spring when Kris Medlen hit the disabled list.
He responded by posting a 3.01 ERA and 3.65 FIP through 20 starts, with a K-BB% of 20.5. In fact, since returning from a shoulder injury last June, Duffy has posted an ERA of 3.30 in 36 starts, leaving many of us to wonder why he was passed over for the likes of Guthrie, Young, and Medlen in the first place.
Duffy is a flyball pitcher that throws a fourseam fastball and a sinker in the mid-90s, and a slider and changeup in the mid-80s. Against right-handed batters, he mixes these pitches well, throwing each at least 20 percent of the time. Against lefties, he leans more heavily on the fourseamer and drops the changeup altogether. Early in an at-bat, Tigers’ right-handed batters should be looking for fastballs in the zone. If they fall behind in the count, however, they’ll want to look for the back-foot slider, and lay off it.
Despite plenty of lingering despair whenever Sanchez’s turn in the rotation comes up, the former ERA champion has looked more like his old self lately. If we throw out his abhorrent start against the Rangers three weeks ago, Sanchez has posted a 3.35 ERA and a 3.17 FIP in seven starts since the All Star break. He recorded a Quality Start five times during that stretch, but the Tigers only won two games due to poor support from the offense and bullpen. Tonight would be a good time for the offense to show up for Sanchez.
Hitter to fear: Eric Hosmer (.306/.359/.500 in 39 plate appearances)
Hitter to fail: Salvador Perez (.200/.273/.200 in 22 plate appearances)
His dominant start a couple weeks ago was Sanchez’s first time facing the Royals as a starter in 2016. It hearkened back to the early days of 2015, when Sanchez simply owned the Royals with a 1.07 ERA in seven career starts. He screwed that up with a couple of miserable games last year, but has shown he can handle these hitters when he’s on. The Royals offense has been the fourth-worst in baseball over the last 30 days with a wRC+ of only 85, and have struggled to hit right-handed pitchers all season.
Tigers’ hitters have seen plenty of Duffy as well, as the lefty has made 14 starts against them in his career. In five starts and a four-inning relief appearance across the 2014 and 2015 seasons, he allowed a 1.54 ERA. The Tigers got a little bit of revenge this season, hitting three solo home runs off him in a June game, and scoring 10 more runs off the Royals’ bullpen to secure the win.
However, Duffy won his other two starts against the Tigers, holding them to five runs in 13.1 innings. Victor Martinez, Jarrod Saltalamacchia, and Ian Kinsler have each hit two home runs off Duffy, with five of the combined six all happening earlier this season.
Fun with Fangraphs’ new splits tool: Duffy has allowed a career 6.65 FIP as a starter in Kauffman Stadium against right-handed batters in September and October. He has walked 8.5 batters per nine innings in such games.
The Royals have the pitching advantage on paper, but Sanchez’s recent performance and Duffy’s last start are encouraging signs. The Tigers have the superior offense, so this one could go either way. This series has major implications on the Wild Card race, so coming away with a win in Game 1 would be a huge boon for the Tigers’ chances.
Royals Devil Magic. Doom.