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Tigers vs. Astros Preview: Searching for offense

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The Detroit bats have collectively gone to sleep in Texas.

MLB: Cleveland Indians at Houston Astros Erik Williams-USA TODAY Sports

A four-game series in Houston was always going to be a tough challenge, but the first two results were less than ideal for the Detroit Tigers. The offense has once again fallen asleep, and while the starting rotation has done its part, they have still surrendered more runs than the bats are allowing them. The result is a record two games under .500, their lowest mark this season.

Of course, the season is just over the 40-game point and there is no reason to panic. As hopeful as fans were ahead of 2017, the reality is that this Tigers team might hover around the .500-line all season long. Depending on the rest of the division and the league, this should be good enough to contend for a playoff position, but not impressive enough to settle any fears.

One player who could be a big influencer for the Tigers this season is Daniel Norris. While Justin Verlander and Michael Fulmer are reliable on the front-end of the rotation, the rest of the starting five is still up in the air. Norris has shown flashes of promise throughout his young career, but the results have not quite been there in 2017.

The starters have dealt well with the Houston offense, but the Tigers bats have gone missing. Will they finally make some noise on Wednesday?

Detroit Tigers (21-23) at Houston Astros (31-15)

Time/Place: 8:10 p.m. ET, Minute Maid Park
SB Nation blog: The Crawfish Boxes
Media: Fox Sports Detroit, MLB.TV, Tigers Radio Network
Pitching Matchup: LHP Daniel Norris (2-3, 4.81 ERA) vs. RHP Charlie Morton (5-3, 4.26 ERA)

Game 45 Pitching Matchup

Pitcher IP K% BB% FIP fWAR
Pitcher IP K% BB% FIP fWAR
Norris 50.2 26.1 8.9 4.04 0.6
Morton 43.0 19.3 10.4 4.03 0.6

Charlie Morton is in his 10th major league season and his fourth different team, owning a career 4.52 ERA and 4.10 FIP. Though he missed almost all of 2016 due to a hamstring injury, the Astros signed him to two-year deal in the offseason which is looking like a good bet. While he may not dominate opponents, he is a solid piece in Houston rotation.

In most areas, Morton has essentially hit his career averages so far in 2017. His ERA and FIP are just slightly lower than his overall numbers, as are his WHIP and batting average against. His walk rate and home run rate are slightly up, but the most noticeable difference is his strikeout rate, sitting almost 10 percentage points above his career average, a trend that emerged last season.

Morton is averaging 96 mph on his sinker this season, the highest of his career. However, it is his curveball which is raking up the strikeouts and is producing just a .154 batting average for opposing hitters. Morton has featured this pitch over 26 percent of the time, which is the highest usage in his career.

The overall numbers are not intimidating for Morton this season, and he has fluctuated between good and bad starts. He has struggled to go through six innings and he has only once made a scoreless start. His past two outings were forgettable, giving up a total of eight runs in 11 innings. The Tigers will hope he will make it three rough outings in a row.

Key matchup: Daniel Norris vs. his potential

Norris ended 2016 well, posting a 2.73 ERA and 3.58 FIP in his final five starts. A couple good appearances to begin 2017 looked like this trend was set to continue, but Norris has been anything but great since then. The potential is definitely there for the young lefty, and there are times when he looks really impressive. However, the walks are up, the average against is up, and he still struggles pitching deeper into games.

Both Fulmer and Zimmermann pitched fine against a solid Houston lineup, and there is no reason Norris cannot do so as well. For the Tigers to have success this season, Norris must be one of the starters that can be relied upon day in and day out. He has yet to reach that point, but games like these are where he can cement his place.

Outlook

There will be plenty of stretches throughout the season where the offense looks asleep, but the Tigers may want to wake up sooner or later. Two games under .500 may not mean much this early, but the Indians and Twins look better poised to keep adding to the win column. Perhaps someone like Morton is exactly who the Tigers need to face. The big bats can only stay silent for so long.

Prediction

The Tigers finally score some runs, but the Astros score more.