To paraphrase Hank Williams Jr. on Fall Monday evenings, “Are you ready for some baseball?” Thanks to a rainout in April, the Detroit Tigers and Chicago White Sox will play four games in a span of roughly 48 hours this weekend. Their Friday doubleheader begins at 5:10 p.m. Eastern, with the second game following shortly after the first. Then, the teams turn around to play afternoon games on Saturday and Sunday. Assuming a relatively speedy finale, the clubs will play at least 36 innings of baseball in two days.
Sounds fun, right? It may not be for a shorthanded Tigers pitching staff. The bullpen, already fighting with one arm (Francisco Rodriguez) tied behind its back, threw a lot of high stress innings in their series against the Houston Astros. The starters were generally able to work deep into games to prevent too much wear-and-tear, but a tough series, late flight, and early doubleheader could wreak havoc as the team continues its longest road trip of the season.
Then there are the White Sox, who are no pushovers. They have come apart a bit since last facing the Tigers, with a 7-15 record in the month of May. However, they have scored 106 runs since leaving Detroit at the end of April, an average of 4.8 per game. Based on run differential alone, they should be .500 in May and three games ahead of the Tigers in the AL Central standings.
One reason for Chicago’s skid is their bad injury luck. Not only are starters James Shields and Carlos Rodon still out of action, but spot starter Dylan Covey will likely miss the series. The bullpen has also sustained a few casualties. Nate Jones and Jake Petricka were recently put on the disabled list, and Zach Putnam is still recovering from elbow soreness. Catcher Geovany Soto is another new addition to the DL, and he will be out for another few months.
There is plenty of firepower leftover to make life difficult for the Tigers, though. Avisail Garcia still hasn’t cooled off yet, and is batting .333/.379/.570 on the season. Jose Abreu has turned up the heat with eight home runs and a .963 OPS in May. Matt Davidson has surprised as a part-time player, and Yolmer Sanchez has embraced a larger role over the past few weeks. Even the once ice-cold Tim Anderson is thawing, with an .861 OPS in May.
While the White Sox had an off day on Thursday, they are coming off a long road trip. Can either team ward off that fatigue for the next two days to gain an advantage in the upcoming series?
Game 1: RHP Buck Farmer (1-3, 4.12 ERA at AAA) vs. Mike Pelfrey (1-4, 4.85 ERA)
I believe Tigers fans everywhere are petrified that Mike Pelfrey will come out and have a dominant outing against his former team. If so, he’s at least trending in the right direction. Pelfrey limited the Seattle Mariners to just one run on four hits in six innings in his last outing, earning his first win of the season. His Game Score of 63 was his highest since August 28, 2015, a win over — you guessed it — the Detroit Tigers.
Game 2: LHP Matt Boyd (2-4, 5.36 ERA) vs. RHP Tyler Danish (1-3, 3.15 ERA at AAA)
A second round pick in 2013, Danish steadily progressed through the minors before making a brief cameo at the major league level in 2016. He combined to pitch just 1 2⁄3 innings in three appearances, including an outing to forget against these same Tigers. Danish has been solid in the minor leagues this year, holding opponents to a 3.15 ERA in 45 2⁄3 innings. His strikeout rate is quite low, though, and the 22-year-old will rely heavily on his sinking fastball to generate weak ground balls.
Game 3: RHP Michael Fulmer (5-2, 2.55 ERA) vs. LHP Derek Holland (4-3, 2.47 ERA)
Derek Holland is the one reclamation project that has panned out for the White Sox this year. He has limited opponents to a 2.47 ERA in 54 2⁄3 innings, and appears to be getting stronger as the season moves along. In his last four outings, he has collected 21 strikeouts. He has also topped the 100-pitch mark in each of his last three starts, an important barrier for a pitcher looking to field a more lucrative contract offer this offseason.
Game 4: RHP Jordan Zimmermann (4-3, 5.86 ERA) vs. RHP Miguel Gonzalez (3-5, 4.55 ERA)
While Derek Holland has maintained his low ERA, Miguel Gonzalez has not. It all started back in late April with the Tigers, who tagged him for seven runs (six earned) in six innings. Since then, Gonzalez has allowed 17 runs (16 earned) in just 22 1⁄3 innings. His home run troubles have continued as well, and he is struggling to pitch deeper into games. He doesn’t match up well with the Tigers, having allowed 36 earned runs in 42 1⁄3 innings throughout his career.
Who’s hot: Jose Abreu
No White Sox hitter has been more valuable than Abreu in the month of May. Hitting .301/.350/.613 with eight home runs in 22 games, Abreu has been worth 0.9 fWAR since the calendar turned over. While his walk rate isn’t great — and never has been — he has gotten on base often enough to score 19 runs this month. As his batting line suggests, he has squared up more pitches, and has a healthy 46.8 percent hard contact rate in May.
A deserving honorable mention is Tim Anderson, who has put up a 132 wRC+ in May despite striking out 17 times to just one walk in 69 plate appearances. Avisail Garcia has also stayed hot with a 130 wRC+ this month.
Who’s not: Melky Cabrera
For the past several years, Cabrera has seesawed back and forth between being an above and below average hitter. However, things have fallen off a cliff this year. Cabrera is hitting just .241/.293/.331 with nine extra base hits in 181 plate appearances this season, good enough for a 69 wRC+. He has been even worse in May, with a .585 OPS to his name. He has been worth -0.6 fWAR this month alone, and is nearly a full win below replacement level for the season. Yet, new manager Rick Renteria has responded by moving Cabrera up in the lineup. It hasn’t worked.
How the Tigers win this series
Once again, the Tigers have been fortunate enough to avoid Jose Quintana in a series against the White Sox. Chicago’s starting pitching has been among the worst in the American League this season (Quintana included), and they too are forced to start a call-up on Friday. Given the recent injuries they have also sustained in their bullpen, the Tigers offense should be able to take advantage of a struggling pitching staff and put up plenty of runs.
Of course, they also need to prevent runs. The starters were good about working deep into games in Houston, but the team could not string together enough solid performances in all aspects of the game. If the starter dominated, the offense struggled. If the pitching and defense failed, the offense would nearly pull off a stunning comeback.
Such has been life for the 2017 Tigers. They are now 4 1⁄2 games back in the AL Central, teetering on the edge of contention. However, with seven upcoming games against the dregs of the division, Detroit has a chance to make up some ground. To do so, they need to put together more complete performances over the weekend against the White Sox. If they continue to struggle, those hard questions we don’t want to ask will start to bubble up sooner rather than later.