Well, here we are. The Detroit Tigers enter their final full series of the regular season 1 1⁄2 games behind the Baltimore Orioles and Toronto Blue Jays for a playoff spot. Both the Orioles and Blue Jays have to face division rivals on the road this weekend, while the Tigers travel to Atlanta for a three-game set against a lowly Braves squad that has already secured their second consecutive 90-loss season. A Tigers sweep could give Atlanta 95 losses for the second year in a row, matching their worst finish since 1990.
Good news, right? Well, not really. The Braves were awful earlier this year, slogging their way to a 31-58 record during the first half. Their offense was on pace to be historically bad. The final series at Turner Field looked like it would hold similar (read: none) significance as Detroit’s final weekend at Tiger Stadium in 1999.
We all know what happened then, though. Sure, those Tigers were playing an equally bad Royals club, but they looked like world beaters over the final three games, outscoring Kansas City 25-6. While the Braves probably don’t have the same emotional attachment to their 20-year-old ballpark, there’s still a certain pride in closing the building in style.
There’s also the part where these Braves are actually pretty good now. They are 16-9 in September, which is the fourth-best record in baseball. They have been pounding the snot out of the ball at the plate, scoring 5.64 runs per game this month. Even since the All-Star break, the Braves hold the second-best wRC+ in the National League. Rookie sensation Dansby Swanson looks like a future star. Freddie Freeman is enjoying the best season of his career. Even Matt Kemp — Matt Kemp! — is hitting.
If the Tigers win this series and get into the playoffs, they will have earned every part of that postseason berth.
Game 1: LHP Daniel Norris vs. RHP Matt Wisler (7-12, 4.86 ERA)
Originally a hotshot prospect in the San Diego Padres system, Blair made his major league debut in Atlanta after being one of the players involved in the Craig Kimbrel trade in April 2015. The 24-year-old righty has a power fastball that averages 93-94 miles per hour and a slider that he has started to use more than 30 percent of the time in the second half. That adjustment hasn’t been all that positive yet, but he has limited opponents to a 3.60 ERA in his last five starts (including a 10-strikeout performance against the Padres on August 31). While righties and lefties have hit him relatively equally in 2016, Wisler has a solid 16.8 K-BB% against right-handed opponents this year. Against lefties? That number drops to just 3.9 percent.
Game 2: RHP Jordan Zimmermann vs. RHP Aaron Blair (1-7, 8.02 ERA)
Aaron Blair was the third piece of the blockbuster trade that brought former No. 1 overall pick Dansby Swanson to Atlanta, but the Braves are giving him every chance to succeed in their rotation before the bevy of young arms in their minor league system force themselves into the conversation. Unfortunately, Blair has not been able to take advantage, allowing an 8.02 ERA and 6.49 FIP in 14 starts. The 24-year-old righthander doesn’t have overpowering stuff, but he bulldozed his way through the minors with high strikeout totals. That strikeout rate hasn’t translated to the majors, however, and Blair’s spotty command has been an issue at times. Lefties have absolutely destroyed him, but even righties are hitting a healthy .286/.342/.492.
Game 3: RHP Justin Verlander vs. RHP Julio Teheran (6-10, 3.33 ERA)
That Julio Teheran has just 10 losses in 29 starts for this Braves team underscores just how good he has been this season. The 25-year-old Colombian has held opponents to two runs or fewer in 27 of his 29 starts, and has seven scoreless outings to his name. Opponents aren’t swinging and missing any more than usual — his strikeout rate has gone up by a whopping 0.9 percent this year — but he has cut down on his walk and home run rates after a subpar 2015 season. He hasn’t been quite as dominant of late, though. Since missing the early part of August with lat tightness, Teheran has a 4.86 ERA and 4.18 FIP in 46 1⁄3 innings. He has allowed five runs or more in three of his eight starts since returning, a feat he accomplished just four times in 21 starts prior to landing on the disabled list.
These Braves could make the Tigers #Barve
Atlanta’s offense was on a record-setting pace (and not in a good way) earlier this season, but things have changed. As a team, the Braves are hitting .279/.349/.431 in the second half. Their 106 wRC+ ranks second among National League teams, and fourth among all MLB teams . They are third in the NL in runs scored in the second half, and tops since the start of September. While they don’t hit for much power — their 63 home runs since the All-Star break are tied for the third-lowest total among MLB teams — they have produced in a big way.
While rookie Dansby Swanson is the face of this turnaround, their veterans are the ones spearheading the turnaround. Freddie Freeman has been one of the hottest hitters in baseball in the second half, batting .332/.443/.644 with 17 home runs. Ender Inciarte, Matt Kemp, and Nick Markakis have also been great, with wRC+ totals of 132, 124, and 115, respectively. The Braves’ catchers have also been hot, as both Anthony Recker (129 wRC+) and Tyler Flowers (115) have been well above average. In fact, among Braves with at least 100 plate appearances since the All-Star break, Swanson is one of just three with a 103 wRC+ or lower. The other two — Gordon Beckham and Erick Aybar — no longer play for the Braves.
How the Tigers win this series
This answer may seem obvious for most baseball games, but the Tigers have to get top-notch production out of their starting pitchers this weekend. The Braves have been a new team since Dansby Swanson’s call-up in August, and could score plenty of runs if Detroit’s pitchers aren’t sharp. Add in the Tigers’ lack of familiarity with the Braves’ young pitchers, and runs could be at a premium on the other side.
Luckily, the Tigers have two of their best starters slated to pitch this weekend. Daniel Norris has (gasp!) been even better than Michael Fulmer of late, and the Braves have been slightly worse against left-handed pitching this year. Justin Verlander should be fine, but Jordan Zimmermann is still a concern after his last two attempts at a return from injury went haywire. Zimmermann looked better in his relief appearance last weekend, but fans are still leery of their $110 million man starting such an important game. However, he earned that contract for a reason, and could potentially help deliver a playoff berth if things break the right way.