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Behind Enemy Lines: Talking King Felix and division standings with Lookout Landing

The Mariners are in last place but hoping to use the Tigers to get a leg up.

Seattle Mariners v Oakland Athletics Photo by Ezra Shaw/Getty Images

If there are two words that come to mind whenever the Tigers play the Seattle Mariners, those words are probably “extra innings.”

If one had to extend that to three words, those words would probably be “Nelson Cruz dingers.”

Needless to say, even though the Tigers don’t face the Mariners often throughout the regular season, the games are typically interesting ones, full of lots of drama, excitement, and often very late nights when the Tigers visit Seattle. This week the Mariners will be at Comerica, kicking off the Tigers 10-game home stand, and they’ll be bringing some power in both their pitching rotation and their batting lineup.

The Tigers will see Cy Young winner Felix Hernandez facing off against Jordan Zimmermann, James Paxton against Daniel Norris, and Hisashi Iwakuma against Justin Verlander in this series.

The Mariners have started the season with some rough numbers but have a good core team with strong pitching, so we talked to Kate Preusser, managing editor of SB Nation’s Mariners’ blog Lookout Landing about what the Tigers might be able to expect this week.

BYB: I’ll start with the unfun stuff. The Mariners are off to a rough opening month, currently tied for last place in the AL West with the Angels. The teams’ numbers are by no means the worst in the league with 8 wins, and I’ve noticed when the Mariners win it’s with huge run numbers. 11-1 most recently against the A’s on Sunday. What would you say has been working for the team and what has been the root of their struggle?

LL: Despite a few games where the offense has really struggled to get it going, they’ve mostly been able to put runs up on the board. They’re also walking more and striking out less than two-thirds of the teams in the league, and while Kyle Seager is off to his usual slow April start, newcomers like Mitch Haniger and Taylor Motter have stepped up to fill the void. The problem has been the pitching staff; they have one of the highest FIPs in the league, and the starters are struggling to get through six innings. The bullpen has been a particular weakness, surrendering late-game leads.

There’s quite a history of dramatic games between these two clubs, including a whopping three walk-off games last season (two wins for Detroit, one for Seattle), and a seemingly unwritten requirement for extra innings when the Tigers play in Seattle (a 15-inning game last year). Do you anticipate a close match up with lots of drama this series?

I was at that fifteen-inning game and it was incredible. I was freezing cold, super-tired but also wired, and the atmosphere was electric. It almost makes up for the game in Detroit we lost on the walkoff wild pitch which cost Steve Cishek his closer job. What a horrible series that was for us, ugh. My guess is we will see some equally close matchups between these two teams, since they have similar strengths and weaknesses. The Tigers have a slight edge in starting pitching; the Mariners have a slight edge offensively; and both bullpens are kind of shaky. The games will probably come down to whose starter can go longer, which probably favors the Tigers.

The Tigers won all four games they played at home against Seattle last year. What is it about Comerica Park that the Mariners find particularly troubling, do you think?

I’m not sure why the Mariners struggled so much at Comerica last year--it’s not exactly a home run desert, as it plays pretty neutral, so it shouldn’t hurt the M’s sluggers that badly. At the time, they were in the middle of a really long and grinding road trip that they did pretty poorly on that wound up knocking them out of playoff contention, and I honestly think the travel schedule might be part of it. I always forget what time zone Detroit is in; it feels like it should be Central, but it’s Eastern? What’s up with that? Anyway, this time it’s just Detroit and Cleveland, so it shouldn’t be as grueling a trip, but the wonky start times, especially the matinees (10 AM our time!), always seem to mess with us.

Speaking of travel, do folks on the West coast hate Eastern road trips as much as we hate West coast ones?

If possible, more. No team travels as many miles as the Mariners. Our road trip in August is especially brutal.

Felix Hernandez has an excellent 9-3 record against the Tigers with a 2.48 ERA. How has he been this season and should Tigers fans be worried with him on the mound against Jordan Zimmermann on Tuesday?

Felix’s 4.28 FIP and low strikeout rate this season don’t seem to inspire a ton of confidence, but his performance so far has been something Mariners fans have been very satisfied with. As our John Trupin pointed out, Felix is pitching more to contact this year, working all over the zone instead of just the bottom of it, and he’s throwing his fastball more, which sets up all his other pitches better. He’s still not the intimidating presence he once was on the mound, but he should be set up to keep the Mariners competitive through six or seven innings. He’s also given up only one walk so far this season, and it was to Giancarlo Stanton. The matchup against Zimmerman should be relatively close.

Speaking of good records against the Tigers, Nelson Cruz is a bonafide Tiger-killer. How has he been offensively this season. Should fans in the outfield have their gloves ready for inevitable bombs?

After a slow start to the season, Cruz is beginning to heat up. In the first few series, he was pressing a lot, chasing bad balls in the dirt; in the second half of April, he’s showing a lot more patience at the plate, taking his walks, and consequently getting better pitches to hit. It took ten games before he hit his first home run; he has three in the second ten games, including a monster bomb he hit in Oakland on Sunday. He did struggle to hit in Comerica last year, with just a .214 average, but hopefully those offensive woes are behind him and he’ll continue on the trajectory he’s on.

Hisashi Iwakuma is getting the ball on Thursday against Tigers’ ace Justin Verlander. Iwakuma has been on a tear of giving up home runs (six over his first four starts). Which of the Tigers do you think will take most advantage of this?

Iwakuma has been our worst starter by far, which is saying something for a team that employs Yovani Gallardo (who has actually been surprisingly fine). When Kuma has his “balance,” he can keep hitters guessing--he had an effective start against the Angels where he had excellent command, giving up just two hits over six innings. But when his command goes, hitters can tee off on him, like when he gave up seven hits against Texas over just three innings. When he has his command, Kuma is especially effective against aggressive hitters who swing over his splitter and can induce a ton of weak contact. When he doesn’t have his command, those same hitters will punish him. Make of that what you will.

On the topic of sluggers, we know all about Cruz and Robinson Cano, but in your opinion is there anyone else in the lineup we should be worried about?

I’d be surprised if Tigers fans hadn’t heard of Mitch Haniger, who has been lighting things up since the beginning of the season. He’s currently running a 195 wRC+ with a 321/.430/.590 slash line and has reached base safely in 22 consecutive games. Taylor Motter has also been somewhat of a revelation, although it remains to be seen if he can continue to be effective when pitchers read the scouting report and stop throwing him stuff on the inside part of the plate. Tigers fans will also get a look at Jean Segura in this series, who the Mariners got (along with Haniger) in a trade with the Diamondbacks. Segura has been out since the home opener with a hamstring injury, but he was showing some nice offensive pop in line with his 2016 season before the injury.

Thanks to Kate for chatting with us, and head over to Lookout Landing where I talk about our catchers, Nicholas Castellanos, and how Matthew Boyd is doing as our fifth starter.