Three weeks ago, the Tigers clung to the second Wild Card spot as they traveled to Kansas City to kick off a weekend series against the Royals. They managed to score four runs against Danny Duffy, who is also starting tonight’s game, and carry a lead into the eighth inning. Then they blew the lead, only to regain it again in the ninth (you may remember Miguel Cabrera’s two-RBI single against the freshly activated Wade Davis).
The Tigers managed to win that game, but proceeded to lose nine of their next 15 games leading up to the recently-concluded series against the Twins. Somehow, the skid only saw them drop two games in the Wild Card standings, and a quick sweep in Minnesota has put the Tigers right back in the playoff picture. If you were only watching the Tigers and not the out-of-town scoreboard, you may have been tempted to move on to the football season. But the Tigers aren’t dead yet — far from it, they currently hold sole possession of the second Wild Card spot.
Now the Tigers will face Duffy again, with their playoff hopes hanging in the balance...again. They own a half-game lead on a Wild Card spot, with 10 games left to play. They’ll send Michael Fulmer to the mound tonight, with Daniel Norris and Matt Boyd in line for this weekend’s young-starter showcase against the defending World Champions.
Kansas City Royals (77-76) at Detroit Tigers (82-70)
Time/Place: 7:10 p.m., Comerica Park
SB Nation blog: Royals Review
Media: Fox Sports Detroit, MLB.TV, Tigers Radio Network
Pitching Matchup: LHP Danny Duffy (12-2, 3.18 ERA) vs. RHP Michael Fulmer (10-7, 3.03 ERA)
The last time the Tigers faced Duffy, I questioned the Royals’ decisions to move him to the bullpen in both 2015 and 2016, given his success as a starter. He struggled a bit with the Tigers that day, but proceeded to post a 3.54 ERA and eat over 20 innings in his three starts since. His newfound command has resulted in a spike in strikeouts, a dearth of walks, and a shiny 3.20 ERA in over 150 innings as a starter this season. In fact, his 21.3 K-BB% ranks fifth in the majors, right between Madison Bumgarner and Justin Verlander.
Duffy has flown under the radar, but he is a tough draw. The Tigers got to him three weeks ago by jumping on fastballs he left over the plate early in the at-bat. Duffy likes to pound the strike zone with fastballs to get ahead in the count, then he can either bury a slider or change below the zone to induce a whiff, or get a fly ball by going above the zone with more fastballs. An aggressive approach may be the best bet for the Tigers’ offense again today.
Fulmer is coming off a rough outing in which he gave up six runs to the Indians. While he did seem to suffer from some bad luck — several of the hits he gave up were weakly hit, but found a hole — he still didn’t look like the dominant pitcher we saw in the middle of the season. In fact, Fulmer has posted a 6.28 ERA in his last five starts, while pitching with extra rest each time.
Some believe that to be a sign of fatigue as Fulmer pitches well past any innings total he has previously reached in a season. Others argue that evidence of fatigue is lacking, and that a sporadic schedule has prevented him from finding a rhythm, with poor results. Your mileage may vary, but Fulmer takes the mound tonight with two extra days of rest under his belt.
Hitter to fear: Kendrys Morales (.429/.600/.429 in 10 plate appearances)
Hitter to fail: Salvador Perez (.100/.100/.400 in 10 plate appearances)
Fulmer has already faced the Royals thrice in his young career, sporting an 0-2 record despite a 2.75 ERA. He posted a Quality Start in his most recent matchup against them, but took the loss when the Tigers’ offense could only manage two runs against Yordano Ventura and the Royals’ bullpen.
Worse than Morales’ success in a small sample against Fulmer is his 1.039 OPS (!) against the Tigers in 151 plate appearances since the start of last year, and his 164 wRC+ over the last 30 days. Please pitch around Morales.
Also, don’t be surprised if Jarrod Saltalamacchia finds his way into the lineup, despite James McCann’s success against left-handed pitching. Salty has faced Duffy four times this season, with two home runs and a walk to show for it. Yes, he made more dingers than outs.
The Tigers have put together a little four-game winning streak with some help from the Twins. Duffy has had a great season and likely cemented his role as a big-league starter, but he has struggled against the Tigers in the past. Fulmer is a fantastic pitcher, but has recently shown signs that he may not actually be a cyborg from the future. The Tigers are playing for their postseason lives, but the Royals are playing the spoiler, and that can be an equally powerful motivator. Something has to give.
The Tigers remain within a half-game of a Wild Card spot.