The Detroit Tigers have been one of the more up-and-down teams in the American League this season, but their latest cold streak put them in danger of missing the playoffs for a second year in a row. As they enter play on Tuesday, the Tigers are 2 1⁄2 games behind the Baltimore Orioles and Toronto Blue Jays in the AL Wild Card race. With only 13 regular season games remaining, the Tigers need anywhere from eight to 10 wins to truly feel comfortable about their chances of reaching the postseason.
Fortunately, their schedule sets up well, and that starts with a three-game series against the Minnesota Twins. The Tigers have bludgeoned the Twins all season, scoring 5.38 runs per game en route to a 12-4 record. The Twins have been passable, with four runs per game of their own against Detroit, but their pitching has failed them time and again in key spots.
The Tigers will be looking to take advantage of a weak Twins pitching staff once again this week. While starters Hector Santiago and Ervin Santana have held the Tigers in check in the past, Minnesota’s worn-down bullpen has not. It may take some more late-game heroics, but the Tigers will be looking for a series win (if not a sweep) in order to keep pace in the AL Wild Card standings.
Game 1: LHP Matt Boyd (5-4, 4.43 ERA) vs. LHP Hector Santiago
Santiago held the Tigers in check the last time these two teams faced off, but he has largely been a disappointment since arriving in Minnesota in July. He has a 5.73 ERA and a 12.8 percent strikeout rate in a Twins uniform, numbers even worse than those that led the Angels to trade him in the first place. He has cut down on his walks with the Twins, but is allowing more than 10 hits per nine innings, by far the highest rate of his career over any long stretch. He has also been unable to keep the ball in the park, allowing nine home runs in his eight starts with Minnesota.
Game 2: TBD vs. Jose Berrios (2-7, 8.88 ERA)
The 2016 season has been one to forget for promising 22-year-old righthander Jose Berrios. He posted spectacular numbers in Triple-A Rochester, holding opponents to a 2.51 ERA with more than 10 strikeouts per nine innings. His 12 major league starts have been the mirror opposite, though. He has allowed 48 earned runs in 48 2⁄3 innings at the major league level, which is more than the 31 he allowed in 111 1⁄3 minor league frames. Berrios’ command has failed him in the majors as well, with 31 walks to his name over those 48 2⁄3 innings.
Game 3: Justin Verlander (14-8, 3.22 ERA) vs. Ervin Santana (7-10, 3.38 ERA)
Ervin Santan has quietly had a solid season for the Twins, allowing a 3.38 ERA and 3.81 FIP in 170 1⁄3 innings. These are the types of numbers that earned Santana his four year, $55 million contract in the first place, and would look good in the middle of a contending team’s rotation (looking at you, Baltimore). He has been particularly stingy since the All-Star break, holding opponents to a 2.56 ERA and .631 OPS in 12 second half starts. He has 70 strikeouts in 77 1⁄3 innings during this stretch, including a trio of performances with eight strikeouts or more.
Not in the face, Brian Dozier
Fox Sports Detroit’s announcers spent most of the previous series against the Twins talking about Brian Dozier’s ridiculous hot streak, but with other offensive weapons struggling to click, his scalding bat stays all the more relevant. Dozier is on pace to set an MLB record for most home runs in a season by a second baseman, and is second to Joey Votto with a 182 wRC+ since the All-Star break. Naturally, Dozier has made matters worse by torching the Tigers. He is hitting .246/.343/.541 with five home runs in 16 games against Detroit this season, and was the subject of many complaints when manager Brad Ausmus allowed multiple struggling starters to face Dozier in key spots during last week’s series.
The natural solution to this problem would be to force someone else to beat them. Several other Twins have posted above average numbers in the second half, but even the best of the bunch (Trevor Plouffe) has a 116 wRC+, and only in a handful of plate appearances at that. Joe Mauer and Jorge Polanco have been slightly above average with a 103 wRC+, while young slugger Miguel Sano has continued to scuffle along, hitting .227/.286/.442 since the All-Star break. If the Tigers can keep the rest of the lineup in check, Dozier can only do so much damage.
How the Tigers win the series
While the Tigers aren’t technically in “must win” territory yet, winning at least two games in this series would be a great idea if Detroit has eyes on staying afloat in the AL Wild Card race. To do so, the offense will need to wake up against the Twins’ starters. They tagged Jose Berrios with his worst start of the season earlier this year, but have struggled against both Santiago and Santana recently. Santiago has flustered the Tigers dating back to his days with the Chicago White Sox, and owns a 2.95 ERA and 1.33 WHIP in 64 career innings against Detroit. Santana’s numbers are arguably better, with a 3.09 ERA, 1.11 WHIP, and .680 OPS allowed in 18 meetings.
Luckily, there have been signs of a breakout. The Tigers have scored nine runs in a game twice in the past week after sitting under the five-run plateau for the previous seven games. They haven’t had much difficulty scoring against the Twins either, plating 86 runs in the 16 matchups between the two clubs this season. With a potentially struggling Boyd and a literal question mark on the docket for the first two games of the series, the Tigers could use as many runs as possible.