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Game 159 Preview: Detroit Tigers at Atlanta Braves

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Silly season has come early in 2016.

Reinhold Matay-USA TODAY Sports

The 2016 season  has grown very weird, very quickly for the Detroit Tigers. Of course they have only themselves, and the weather, to blame. There is nothing left to do but embrace the strange, and use it as fuel for as long as they can. The Tigers' rookies are way ahead on that score, at least.

This is, of course, our second attempt at a Game 159 preview. Pray that we don’t need a third. We’ve reached that point in the season where fear is our friend. Where every game featuring the contenders can completely unbalance the Jenga tower of inter-related outcomes and must-win games the Tigers must confront to get into the postseason. The only way we’ll be able to relax any time soon is if the Tigers fail in Atlanta. Unfortunately, a talented young Braves' squad is playing a much better brand of baseball of late, and seems well positioned to play spoiler.

With the wash-out of Thursday’s game with the Cleveland Indians, the Tigers’ regular season is already extended to Monday. Unless of course, the Tigers clinch, or are completely eliminated, over the weekend, in which case Monday’s game will be unnecessary. Just as likely is the potential for a play-in tournament between multiple wild card hopefuls. Yesterday, BYB’s Rob Rogacki broke down the various chaos scenarios, including a possible stretch of five consecutive must-win games that could confront the Tigers to get to the ALDS.

My advice to the Tigers, is to just win, baby. The Tigers don’t exactly control their destiny, but the odds are good that sweeping the Braves will leave the Tigers facing another Triple-A version of the Cleveland Indians’ on Monday, with the season on the line. Lose one game, and things look bleak. Lose two? Yeah, enjoy the offseason...probably.

Detroit Tigers (85-73) at Atlanta Braves (66-92)

Time/Place: 7:35 p.m., Turner Field
SB Nation Blog: Talking Chop
Media: Fox Sports Detroit, MLB.TVTigers Radio Network
Pitching Matchup: RHP Matt Wisler (7-12, 4.86 ERA) vs. LHP Daniel Norris (3-2, 3.59 ERA)

Pitcher IP K% BB% FIP fWAR
Norris 62.2 22.9 7.3 3.96 1.0
Wisler 152.0 17.3 7.3 4.65 0.8

Matt Wisler is still a young pitcher, in just his second major league season, but he seems to have already found his level as a backend starter. His ERA and FIP numbers have sat between 4.50 and 5.00 in his two seasons, indicating that he's gotten about as much out of a mediocre arsenal as he can. There isn't much projection left for him without a radical change, and yet he's already at least a useful contributor at just 24 years old.

Wisler doesn't strike out many, but has good command and has been pretty solid in September. He's the type of guy you'd expect to be a groundball pitcher, and he is trending in that direction in recent months. Wisler leads with a very unremarkable fourseam fastball, and has an even distribution of flyballs and grounders on the year. However, in recent months, Wisler is mixing in a two-seam fastball with better success and has managed to get more balls on the ground. When he's getting those groundballs, he's reasonably effective. When he doesn't, he gets hit hard, as his cringe-worthy 1.36 HR/9 while pitching in the N.L. East would attest.

Wisler's only plus weapon is a slurvy slider that he's had pretty good command of lately. It has a whiff rate of 20.2 percent this season, and is his only legitimate swing-and-miss offering. With the season on the line, this is a guy the Tigers' offense should light up. However, he is quite capable of using their aggressiveness against them if the Tigers come out swinging from their heels.

Hitter to Fear: Matt Kemp (.315/.352/.631 against LHP in 2016)
Hitter to Fail: Mallex Smith (.080/.179/.120 against lefties in 57 plate appearances)

In truth, for a young left-hander like Daniel Norris, the Braves aren't the happiest of match-ups. Freddie Freeman hits everyone now and is having a borderline MVP caliber season. Leadoff man Ender Inciarte is another left-handed hitter without pronounced splits, and keeping him off the basepaths is going to be imperative. Matt Kemp and Dansby Swanson both crush lefties in terms of power numbers especially. Swanson, in particular, hasn't been around long enough to have all his weaknesses identified, and he could cause Norris some trouble.

This is a game featuring entirely new matchups. There is very little history to bank on here. Still, while the Braves do have some offensive talent, overall this is still a fairly mediocre lineup. If Norris can maneuver through the big bats, he should benefit from the Braves unfamiliarity with him more than they do the reverse.

Outlook

Daniel Norris has still struggled to be efficient recently, but otherwise he's been quite good. The strikeouts are piling up for him and he's kept the walks in check. There also aren't a lot of similar lefties the Braves will have faced this season. The question is how well Norris can handle the pressure. So far, he's been just fine during the Tigers' stretch run, and arguably their second best starting pitcher of late. He appears to be getting stronger as he finally gets consistent innings under his belt at the major league level.

The problem, is that the Braves have been absolutely on fire the past few weeks. They've swept the Marlins, Mets and Phillies in three of their last five series. A young talented team with nothing to lose is a treacherous opponent to take on at this point in the season. While the Tigers should, and must, mash against Matt Wisler, the pitching staff is liable to have its hands full in this series. Just to make it even more fun, the Tigers get to play National League ball for three days with the season on the line. Thanks, MLB.

Prediction

Norris bends, but doesn't break, while the Tigers' offense demolishes Matt Wisler to take game one.