Last season, nothing cured the Detroit Tigers’ woes like a series against the Minnesota Twins. Following a brutal 2-11 stretch in early May, the Tigers swept the Twins to spur a 9-2 run that got them back above .500. They kicked off a late-August road trip with a sweep over the Twins at Target Field that moved them to within 4 1⁄2 games of the eventual division champion Cleveland Indians. After losing two of three to Cleveland in mid-September — which put them two games out of a playoff spot — the Tigers swept Minnesota again to jump into a momentary Wild Card lead.
Let’s hope this continues in 2017. The Tigers come to Minnesota licking their wounds following a brutal sweep at the hands of the Tampa Bay Rays. Just about everything went wrong for Detroit at Tropicana Field, with the defense and bullpen highlighting the team’s woes during the three-game series. Luckily, the Twin Cities have been just like home for the Tigers in recent years. Detroit went a perfect 9-0 in Minneapolis last season, and scored 7.22 runs per game. They were 15-4 against the Twins overall, which helped them recover from their abysmal 4-14 mark against the Tribe.
If the Tigers can get back on track in this series, they can salvage a road trip that took a wrong turn in Florida. Two wins over the Twins would give the Tigers a respectable 4-5 record on a difficult nine-game swing, while a Detroit sweep would put them above .500. With their two best pitchers set to go on Friday and Sunday, anything less than a series win would be a major disappointment.
Game 1: RHP Justin Verlander (1-1, 5.71 ERA) vs. LHP Hector Santiago (1-1, 1.47 ERA)
Hector Santiago shut down the Tigers in a start at Comerica Park 10 days ago, allowing just two runs in 6 1⁄3 innings of work. Impressively, this is Santiago’s worst outing of the season so far. He has only allowed three runs in his three starts, and has 11 strikeouts to just three walks in 18 1⁄3 innings.
For all his early season success, however, Santiago has a history of allowing home runs in bunches. The Tigers are responsible for his only homer allowed in 2017, and they were very comfortable at the plate at Target Field last season. Santiago has great career numbers against the Tigers, but has not been quite as impressive when pitching away from Comerica Park’s spacious outfield.
Game 2: LHP Matt Boyd (2-1, 3.77 ERA) vs. LHP Adalberto Mejia (0-1, 4.05 ERA)
The Twins juggled their rotation after a rainout on Wednesday, pushing lefthander Adalberto Mejia to a weekend start against the Tigers. Mejia did not appear in last week’s series between the two teams; his only two starts in 2017 have come against the Chicago White Sox. Originally a borderline top-100 prospect in the San Francisco Giants system, Mejia was acquired by the Twins in 2016 in the trade that sent Eduardo Nunez to the Bay Area. The 23-year-old lefty features a fastball in the low 90s, a low-to-mid 80s slider that has generated a 17.8 percent whiff rate in limited major league action, and a low 80s changeup that he primarily uses as a put-away pitch against right-handed hitters.
Game 3: RHP Michael Fulmer (1-1, 3.00 ERA) vs. RHP Kyle Gibson (0-2, 6.91 ERA)
Fun fact: Kyle Gibson has allowed more runs in 2017 than Ervin Santana, Hector Santiago, and Adalberto Mejia... combined. The Tigers touched up Gibson for five earned runs in an April 12 outing at Comerica Park, but this was one of their better outings against the 29-year-old in recent memory. Gibson’s high ground ball rate somewhat flummoxed the Tigers offense in 2016, and had them guessing a bit in the early innings of that start nine days ago before they put up a crooked number in the fourth. His slow start has Twins fans frustrated already, especially as Jose Berrios continues to mow down the competition in the minors.
Timing isn’t everything... but it’s something
Early last year, we circled the Tigers’ season-ending series against the Atlanta Braves as a potential trap stretch. While the Braves were clearly rebuilding all season long, many believed that they would have found an identity of sorts at season’s end. Between another second-half surge from Matt Kemp and Dansby Swanson’s late summer call-up, we were right. The Tigers lost two of three, ending any hopes they had of sneaking into the postseason.
Timing didn’t work in the Tigers’ favor then, but it has so far this season. The Tigers will miss Minnesota ace Ervin Santana for the second consecutive series against the Twins. This is a fortunate circumstance at any time, but is especially so this April given Santana’s red-hot start to the season. The 34-year-old righthander has allowed just two earned runs in his first four starts, resulting in a minuscule 0.64 ERA. While this isn’t sustainable, Santana had been good enough to warrant a 1.48 Deserved Run Average (DRA) through his first three starts.
Santana will fall back to earth eventually. However, it’s also worth noting that he has been particularly stingy against the Tigers in his career. They are hitting just .222/.287/.389 against him in 19 games, and he has a 3.08 ERA.
How the Tigers win this series
It would be hard for the Tigers to play any worse than they did in Tampa earlier this week. While just about everything went wrong for them against the Rays, the defense and pitching were their biggest flaws. Getting back into a normal outdoor stadium will help the outfield get back on track, but there will be growing pains as center fielder JaCoby Jones gets used to what is still a relatively new position for him. The infield defense should also benefit from returning to a normal grass and dirt surface.
In other words: good riddance, Tropicana Field.
It will be interesting to see how the Tigers pitching staff adjusts to the beating they took in Tampa. Rays hitters were clearly sitting on the fastball, and swung with abandon when they got that pitch. The Twins probably won’t take such an aggressive approach, but will the Tigers get a little gun shy if they give up any early runs? How the Tigers sequence their pitches in this series will be a compelling storyline to watch over the next few days.