These are the words manager Brad Ausmus used to describe what happened when the Detroit Tigers faced the Cleveland Indians last season. It wasn’t pretty, to say the least. The Tigers lost 14 of 18 matchups against Cleveland, and were outscored by a whopping 35 runs. Their abysmal record against the Tribe not only knocked them out of the Wild Card race, but ultimately cost them a shot at the AL Central title; after all, the Tigers had a better record against everyone else than Cleveland did, and outscored those opponents by 64 runs.
So, when Friday night starter Daniel Norris says “I don’t think they were that much better than us,” he has some basis in fact. He, in particular, should have an axe to grind. Norris only started two of the 18 games against Cleveland last season and left one early due to injury; the Tigers won the other game, 9-5, at Progressive Field in September. His performance, both against the Indians and overall, has to leave fans wondering what would have happened had the Tigers started him and Matt Boyd against the Indians more often instead of struggling veterans Mike Pelfrey and Anibal Sanchez.
Luckily, the Tigers will get the chance to see early on, as both Norris and Boyd are slated to face the Indians in this series. Can the Tigers get off to a good start with Norris on the mound tonight?
Detroit Tigers (6-3) at Cleveland Indians (4-5)
Time/Place: 7:10 p.m., Progressive Field
SB Nation blog: Let’s Go Tribe
Media: Fox Sports Detroit, MLB.TV, Tigers Radio Network
Pitching Matchup: LHP Daniel Norris (0-0, 4.26 ERA) vs. RHP Trevor Bauer (0-1, 6.35 ERA)
Game 10 Pitching Matchup
There’s nothing like the first week of the season, where any changes a player makes from their performance the prior year could be significant enough to take hold for an entire season. Take Trevor Bauer, for instance. While he struggled a bit in his first start of the year, he struck out seven and did not walk a batter in 5 2⁄3 innings. Amazingly, this was the first time Bauer made a start without walking a single hitter since July 8, 2015.
However, even that might not mean much. Bauer lowered his walk rate to a passable 8.6 percent in 2016, but still allowed a 4.26 ERA and 3.99 FIP in 190 innings. His strikeout rate decreased slightly as well, and he continued his unpredictable pitch usage throughout the year. Bauer’s constant tinkering has been a subject of contention for years, and, well...
Could this finally be the year, though? It looks promising so far. Bauer threw a bunch of curveballs in his first start and settled into a three-pitch mix as the game went on. However, it will take a lengthy stretch of consistent results for him to convince us that the promising 26-year-old has finally taken the step forward so many hoped for when he first arrived in Cleveland four years ago.
Key matchup: Daniel Norris vs. efficiency
Even if you exclude his injury-shortened outing against the Indians last July, Norris averaged just under 5 2⁄3 innings per start in 2016. He has not made it through seven full innings since his sparkling Tigers debut in 2015, and pitched at least six innings in just four of his 13 starts last season. Meanwhile, the Indians offense saw 3.92 pitches per plate appearance last season, a rate slightly better than average. They might not be quite so patient in 2017 after losing Mike Napoli, who saw a whopping 4.57 pitches per PA last year. Michael Brantley’s return should also slightly depress that number; he has seen just 3.70 pitches per PA in his career. If Norris can get some quick outs and work deep into the game, he could minimize the number of chances the Tigers’ leaky bullpen has to blow a lead.
The Indians used to struggle something fierce against left-handed pitching. However, since the arrival of switch-hitter Francisco Lindor and various right-handed power bats, the Tribe’s platoon splits have been relatively even. Indians fans might disagree after their offense was held to just one hit by White Sox starter Derek Holland earlier this week, but the club’s everyday lineup — including Encarnacion and lefty-masher Carlos Santana — is plenty potent enough to take advantage of Norris if he is off his game. The Tigers should be able to put up a few runs on Bauer, but won’t do well if they get behind and have to go through Andrew Miller and Cody Allen.
The Tigers survive a late bullpen scare and take the first game of the series.