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Game 158 Preview: Cleveland Indians at Detroit Tigers

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The Tigers offense gets a second crack at scoring in a full game from the Indians bullpen.

Detroit Tigers v Cleveland Indians Photo by David Maxwell/Getty Images

Tuesday’s 12-0 drubbing of the Cleveland Indians went a long way in helping the Tigers’ odds of returning to the postseason. With some help outside the division — and possibly some lingering hangovers in the other dugout — Detroit’s playoff odds spiked from 17.4 percent Tuesday morning up to 31.2 percent on Wednesday, according to FanGraphs. Expect a similar jump if the Tigers gain another game on the Baltimore Orioles; the last time the two teams were tied, Detroit’s playoff odds were over 60 percent.

Of course, this assumes that the Tigers will beat the Indians on Wednesday. Given how the rest of 2016 has gone, this is far from a safe bet. Tuesday’s drubbing aside, the Tigers are still 3-14 with a -38 run differential against the Tribe this season. The Indians have scored more than six runs per game against Detroit pitching this year, and that pace hasn’t dropped off much in games at Comerica Park.

Hitting isn’t the only reason Cleveland has dominated the Tigers this year. The Indians have typically held a significant advantage in the starting pitching matchup, but that is not the case on Wednesday. Michael Fulmer has been a beast in home starts this season, limiting opponents to a 2.70 ERA in nine games. While his advanced metrics don’t entirely reflect this split, he does have a much lower walk rate at Comerica Park. Can he continue his home success in another important game against the Indians?

Cleveland Indians (91-66) at Detroit Tigers (84-73)

Time/Place: 7:10 p.m., Comerica Park
SB Nation blog: Let’s Go Tribe
Media: Fox Sports Detroit, MLB.TV, Tigers Radio Network
Pitching Matchup: RHP Zach McAllister (3-2, 3.58 ERA) vs. RHP Michael Fulmer (11-7, 2.95 ERA)

Pitcher IP K% BB% FIP fWAR
McAllister 50.1 23.5 9.7 4.02 0.4
Fulmer 155.2 20.5 6.2 3.75 2.9

The Tigers did themselves a major favor on Tuesday evening. While not many expected big things out of Mike Clevinger, who spent most of the year pitching in Triple-A Columbus, the Tigers were able to knock him out after scoring five runs in just two innings. It’s a bit curious that Indians manager Terry Francona pulled Clevinger after just 43 pitches given the rag-tag lineup facing Justin Verlander, but pull Clevinger he did. This forced the Indians bullpen to throw six innings and a combined 118 pitches in a 12-0 loss.

Normally, this wouldn’t seem like a big deal. Teams wear losses like this all the time. However, given the injuries that the Indians have sustained in their rotation recently, it is. Trevor Bauer had his next start pushed back to the weekend, and the dynamic duo of Zach McAllister and Ryan Merritt will start the final two games of this series. While Merritt started in the minors, McAllister hasn’t thrown more than 36 pitches in an outing this season. Even Merritt might not be all that stretched out, having pitched in just one game since his last minor league start on September 2.

The Indians might be just fine in the playoffs, especially if Corey Kluber recovers quickly from his quad strain. However, the next two games — the ones that matter most to the Tigers — will heavily feature a Tribe bullpen that has already pitched 11 innings in this series. Manager Terry Francona has already used eight different relievers, six of whom threw more than 20 pitches in their respective outings. He will have to dip further into that well if the Tigers drive up McAllister’s pitch count early on Wednesday.

Speaking of McAllister, the 28-year-old righthander has worked almost exclusively out of the bullpen this year. He struggled early, allowing a 5.40 ERA in 26 23 innings in the first half. However, things have been much better since the All-Star break. McAllister has limited opponents to a 1.52 ERA and 3.02 FIP in the second half. His strikeout rate has not budged for most of the year, but he has cut down significantly on both walks and home runs allowed, resulting in a passable 1.31 WHIP in 23 23 second half innings.

Hitter to fear: Mike Napoli (.281/.400/.561 vs. Tigers in 2016)
Hitter to fail: Jose Ramirez (.269/.328/.365 vs. Tigers in 2016)

The Indians have tattooed Tigers pitching all season long, which is why a player with .269 batting average and .328 on-base percentage — respectable numbers for a player of Jose Ramirez’s caliber — is our “hitter to fail.” Luckily, the Tigers have one of their best pitchers on the mound in Michael Fulmer. The 23-year-old righthander struggled in his last start against the Tribe, but held them in check in a start on July 6. Fulmer limited the Indians to two runs (one earned) on five hits in six innings that day, and earned the Tigers’ first win of the season against Cleveland. Here’s hoping he can do it again.

Outlook

We try to avoid using this term whenever possible, but it’s must-win time for the Tigers. Between their fight for a playoff spot — one that is being made easier by the Toronto Blue Jays’ efforts, thankfully — and a battered Cleveland pitching staff in front of them, the Tigers can’t afford to slip up over the next two games. Wins in both matchups would put a lot of pressure on Baltimore and the other teams in the playoff race heading into the final weekend of the regular season, and might even afford the Tigers some wiggle room against a better-than-you-think Braves squad. It all starts with getting to McAllister early on Wednesday and dipping further into a tired Cleveland bullpen.

Prediction

Fulmer makes another case for end-of-season hardware in a Tigers win.

★★★

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