One week ago, the Detroit Tigers were sitting pretty. They had a 10-8 record and sat atop the AL Central, tied with the Cleveland Indians. The Tigers were coming off a tough road trip at the time, one that saw them come within inches of winning five out of nine games against two division rivals and a stingy Tampa Bay Rays squad.
Then last week happened. The Tigers dropped four of six at home against the Seattle Mariners and Chicago White Sox, falling to 12-12. They dropped from first to fourth, and their bullpen continued to perform like the very worst unit in baseball.
Weeks like this will happen, but this one was particularly ill-timed for the Tigers. They now welcome in the Cleveland Indians, a preseason favorite to repeat as AL Central (and American League) champions. Following their four-game set with the Tribe, the Tigers enter a brutal May schedule that will see them play 20 of their next 26 games on the road.
Worse yet, the Indians are heating up. They have won nine of their last 12 games, and their pitching is rounding into form. The Tribe have only allowed five runs in two games since the Tigers scored six in a losing effort on April 15, and ace Corey Kluber is rounding into form. The offense is clicking on all cylinders as well — more on them in a moment — and their bullpen has the lowest FIP (and second-lowest ERA) in all of baseball.
Buckle up. This will be a tough series.
Game 1: RHP Trevor Bauer (2-2, 6.26 ERA) vs. LHP Daniel Norris (1-2, 4.71 ERA)
Prior to Trevor Bauer’s first start against the Tigers, we wondered if his seven strikeout, zero walk performance in the desert was a sign of things to come. The 26-year-old righthander has never quite put things together, but is still as promising of an arm as you will see in baseball. Four starts in, things look pretty good. Bauer has maintained his high strikeout rate, fanning at least six batters in each outing. He has started to walk some hitters, but his current 7.1 percent walk rate is still a career-best. His 21.4 K-BB% seems unsustainable — it’s nearly double his previous best — but even with some regression, that 6.26 ERA should start to come down soon.
Game 2: RHP Corey Kluber (3-1, 4.19 ERA) vs. RHP Justin Verlander (1-2, 4.60 ERA)
“Just my luck,” is what Corey Kluber must be thinking when he sees that Miguel Cabrera is slated to come off the disabled list the day Kluber starts at Comerica Park. The Tigers’ slugger is hitting a cool .440/.472/.800 in 53 plate appearances against the former Cy Young winner, and pairs with Victor Martinez (.333/.395/.564) to form a lethal tandem in the middle of the Tigers’ order.
Luckily, Kluber is pretty good in his own right. He struggled in his first meeting of the season against the Tigers, but has rounded into form since then. In his last two starts, he has allowed three runs on 11 hits in 16 innings with 19 strikeouts.
Game 3: RHP Carlos Carrasco (2-2, 2.04 ERA) vs. LHP Matt Boyd (2-1, 3.86 ERA)
There always seems to be one starter on every team who doesn’t get any run support, and Carlos Carrasco has been that pitcher for the Indians this year. He has a 2.04 ERA and has not allowed more than three runs in a single outing, but the Indians are just 3-2 when he takes the mound. His five walks against the Tigers on April 16 appear to be a blip on the radar; he has only issued two free passes in his other four outings combined. If he maintains his current production, he will be an All-Star, with or without the run support.
Game 4: RHP Danny Salazar (2-2, 4.34 ERA) vs. RHP Michael Fulmer (2-1, 3.19 ERA)
The Tigers were fortunate to miss Salazar in their three-game series at Progressive Field in April. The hard-throwing righthander had relatively meager numbers against Detroit last season, but has been a menace at times in years past. His heater will be a good test for Cabrera, who is slated to come off the disabled list this week, but has a pair of home runs in 33 plate appearances against Salazar. The 27-year-old will need to find his command, though; he has walked 14 batters in 29 innings this season.
Who’s hot: Michael Brantley
Uh oh. A long-time Tigers nemesis, Michael Brantley has been on fire lately. He is hitting .341/.386/.683 with four home runs in the past two weeks, and has a healthy 154 wRC+ for the season. The 29-year-old outfielder was a major question mark after missing most of last season following right shoulder surgery, but he has looked like the Brantley of old through the first month of 2017. His hot streak is ill-timed for the Tigers, who have watched him compile a .336/.386/.501 line in 424 career plate appearances against Detroit pitching.
Who’s not: Umm...
Other than cherrypicking a random middle relief arm or Josh Tomlin (who the Tigers won’t see in this series), there aren’t many holes on this Indians roster. The four starting pitchers that the Tigers will face this week all have a strikeout rate of 26.2 percent or better, while nearly every Indians hitter has a 111 wRC+ or better over the past two weeks. The lone exceptions are role players like Lonnie Chisenhall — who probably won’t start against the Tigers’ left-handed starters anyway — or Jason Kipnis, who has only played nine games since coming off the disabled list with a shoulder injury of his own.
How the Tigers win the series
In their first series against the Indians, the Tigers were much better in all facets of the game than they showed at (almost) any point against the Tribe last year. In particular, strong outings from Daniel Norris and Matt Boyd helped close the gap between the Tigers and Cleveland’s vaunted starting rotation, as well as mitigate the significant advantage Cleveland’s bullpen holds over Detroit (Terry Francona’s bullpen management didn’t help).
Having both Boyd and Norris lined up to face an Indians lineup that has struggled against lefthanders is nice, but the Tigers need solid performances out of Verlander and Fulmer as well. Verlander had one of the worst starts of his career against the Indians a couple weeks ago, but has historically struggled at Progressive Field. Fulmer has been dependable, if a bit unimpressive in many of his April starts. The Tigers don’t need to match Cleveland pitch-for-pitch — especially if Miguel Cabrera hits the ground running in his return — but keeping pace with the Tribe rotation is important if the Tigers are to start off May the right way.