For most of the 2016 regular season, the Detroit Tigers have known that they would need to go through the Cleveland Indians if they were going to make the postseason. The Tribe swept the Tigers twice by May 5, and by June 4 had moved into first place in the AL Central, a lead they have not relinquished since. The Indians swept the Tigers a third time in late June, which increased their division lead to five games.
The Tigers eventually broke through against Cleveland with a win on July 6, but Cleveland has been able to maintain a decent cushion in the division throughout most of the second half. They struggled a bit in late July, during which the Tigers were able to pull within a couple games, but a resurgent August pushed their lead back to its previous distance.
The AL Central is all but over at this point. The Indians have a seven game lead with seven games to play, and a single Tribe win in this series will clinch the crown. The Tigers still have wild card aspirations, though. They are just one game back of the Baltimore Orioles in the loss column, and the O’s face a tough schedule this week with no home games remaining.
Can the Tigers finally get over the hump against the Indians and punch their ticket to the postseason?
Game 1: RHP Corey Kluber (18-9, 3.11 ERA) vs. RHP Buck Farmer (0-0, 4.07 ERA)
While Kluber has arguably been the best pitcher in the American League this season, he will have to settle for second place in the Cy Young voting now that Rick Porcello has topped the 20-win mark. Kluber leads Porcello in several other categories, including strikeouts, FIP, and fWAR. Whether or not the 30-year-old righthander brings home his second Cy Young Award, he has posed a tough matchup for the Tigers this season, limiting them to a 1.88 ERA in three starts. Detroit batters have hit just .146/.205/.280 against him this year. Kluber comes in pitching some of his best ball of the season, with a 2.46 ERA and 28.7 percent strikeout rate since the All-Star break.
Game 2: RHP Mike Clevinger (2-2, 4.65 ERA) vs. RHP Justin Verlander (15-8, 3.21 ERA)
Mike Clevinger has not received any love from national prospect writers, but the former fourth round pick has made some noise in the Indians’ farm system over the past couple years. He posted a 2.73 ERA and 3.02 FIP in 158 innings at Double-A Akron in 2015, and followed that up with a 3.00 ERA and 3.36 FIP in 93 innings at Triple-A Columbus this year. His first taste of big league action has gone as expected, with a 4.65 ERA and 4.69 FIP in 50 1⁄3 innings. The 25-year-old righthander relies primarily on a fastball that sits around 93-94 miles per hour, and mixes in the occasional slider and changeup.
Game 3: RHP Trevor Bauer (12-8, 4.26 ERA) vs. RHP Michael Fulmer (11-7, 2.95 ERA)
Last we saw Trevor Bauer, he beaned three Tigers hitters en route to Detroit’s second win of the year over the Tribe. Bauer’s command has gotten the better of him at times, but he is currently enjoying arguably his best season to date. The Indians need him at his best down the stretch with the injuries elsewhere in their rotation, but he has struggled to a 5.42 ERA and 4.75 FIP in the second half. Don’t expect any retaliation in this game -- Bauer showed true remorse after their last meeting and the Tigers have too much at stake — but it would be nice to get some payback on the scoreboard.
Game 4: RHP Cody Anderson (2-5, 6.34 ERA) vs. LHP Daniel Norris (3-2, 3.59 ERA)
With Carlos Carrasco’s injury hitting the Indians so recently, they have not had time to discover and stretch out a true fifth starter for their rotation. Luckily, they don’t need one. Cody Anderson made the start for the Indians on Saturday against the White Sox, but only threw 40 pitches across two innings. Indians manager Terry Francona treated that start like a bullpen game — eight different Indians pitched in an 8-1 loss — and will likely do so on Thursday against the Tigers, especially if Cleveland has already clinched the division. Anderson’s overall numbers don’t look pretty, but his struggles largely came when he was in the Tribe’s rotation. As a reliever, he has a 3.06 ERA and 3.53 FIP in 17 2⁄3 innings.
Baserunning is real, and real important
A lot has been made of the Tigers’ struggles on the basepaths this season, and for good reason. The Tigers rank last in baseball with -20.9 baserunning runs (BsR), FanGraphs’ attempt at quantifying everything a player or team can do on the bases. Stolen bases only tell so much of the story — the 2013 Tigers were awesome and only stole 35 bases the entire season — but running the bases well can help manufacture runs when homers aren’t flying out of the park.
Contrast that with the Indians, who are one of baseball’s best baserunning team by the same metrics. They rank first in the American League with 16.5 BsR, nearly five runs better than the next AL team. The Tribe also lead the AL with 130 stolen bases, a surprisingly high total when you consider some of the plodders in the middle of their lineup. The Indians also take extra bases more often than any other AL team, while the Tigers rank dead last in the AL at just 34 percent.
How the Tigers win the series
There are a lot of reasons why the Indians have dominated the Tigers so thoroughly this season, but chief among them is their ability to keep the Tigers’ dangerous lineup in check. Cleveland’s dominant starting rotation has been able to take advantage of Detroit’s righty-heavy lineup in a way that other teams cannot; the Indians have busted Tigers hitters inside time and again, something that can’t be consistently executed without the wealth of natural talent the Indians possess.
Fortunately for the Tigers, some of that talent is missing. Both Carlos Carrasco and Danny Salazar are injured and will miss the series (if not the rest of the season). Trevor Bauer has had his ups and downs, and the Tigers have been able to wait out his wildness as well as any other MLB club. If Detroit can start to eke out some runs — they have only scored 49 in 15 games against the Tribe this season — then they might be able to finally turn the tide on this one-sided matchup.