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Tigers vs. Red Sox Preview: The Tigers need Justin Verlander in ace mode

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The Tigers’ bats can handle Chris Sale, but their ace is a complete wildcard at the moment.

Detroit Tigers v Kansas City Royals Photo by Brian Davidson/Getty Images

The Detroit Tigers are still spinning their wheels. Sitting two games under .500, but just three and a half games from first place, the Tigers aren’t in such bad shape. But, only 28 games remain until the All-Star break, when the viability of the season is going to be under maximum scrutiny. More than any other element, the starting pitching has to get on a roll if they’re going to push to the front of the division. That has to start with Justin Verlander, and it has to start soon.

So far this season, Verlander has pitched a clunker for every dominant start, with a smattering of decent ones mixed in. However, he has had good recent success against the Red Sox. On April 10, he spun seven scoreless innings against them, continuing the dominance he displayed last season. The Red Sox have typically managed to foul off a lot of pitches against him over the past year, shortening his starts, but they never seem to do any damage either. The Tigers desperately need their ace to figure out a way to produce a good outing tonight. If he can’t, they’ll be hard pressed to win it with their bats alone against 2017 Chris Sale.

Detroit Tigers (29-31) at Boston Red Sox (33-27)

Time/Place: 7:10 p.m., Fenway Park
SB Nation blog: Over the Monster
Media: FOX, MLB.TV, Tigers Radio Network
Pitching Matchup: RHP Justin Verlander (4-4, 4.63 ERA) vs. LHP Chris Sale (7-2, 2.89 ERA)

Game 61 Pitching Matchup

Pitcher IP K% BB% FIP fWAR
Pitcher IP K% BB% FIP fWAR
Verlander 70 21.4 10.7 4.55 0.7
Sale 84 36.4 5.2 1.85 3.6

The Tigers need no introduction to Chris Sale. No offense in the game has had as much experience, or success, against him as the Tigers have. However, the Sale we’ve seen in 2017 may be the best version yet. After a season or two of trying to use his fastball to induce weak contact and quicker outs to pitch more innings, Sale has tried a different approach in 2017. He’s simply striking everyone out.

Sale currently leads all qualified starters in strikeout rate, as well as strikeout to walk ratio. Only Max Scherzer is in his league at the moment in that regard. The former Chicago White Sox ace has also done a nice job limiting home runs, and is getting a very even mix of groundballs and flyballs. Despite the Tigers past success against him, they’re undoubtedly going to have their hands full.

However, there are chinks in Sale’s armor that the numbers don’t reveal. The incredible start he got off to this season is still masking the fact that he’s stumbled recently. Over his last seven starts, he’s given up less than three runs only twice. He’s not getting shelled either, but the Chicago White Sox got to him for five runs in five innings just two starts back. His last outing against the Baltimore Orioles resulted in three runs in six innings. The strikeouts will no doubt come in bunches tonight, but the Tigers’ offense is plenty capable of putting up some runs against him.

Key Matchup: Justin Verlander vs. himself

The real question remains whether Verlander is healthy enough to give his team the outing they need to make some success against Sale count. Assuming that he is, the fastball should be plenty good enough to do its part. The velocity and life are as good as we’ve seen in years. But, if that’s all he’s got, the Red Sox are going to hammer the fastball no matter who is throwing it. So, the questions continue to revolve around Verlander’s command and breaking pitches.

Unfortunately, it’s hard to expect that Verlander will simply flip the switch on Saturday night. The minor groin strain that ended his last start prematurely may be behind him, but he probably didn’t get much work in this week beyond just trying to get right physically. So we probably can’t expect to see a set of breaking balls cured of their 2017 ills just yet.

A few weeks back, I wrote about the adjustment in release point that Verlander has made this season. We can all agree it hasn’t gone well. The slider and curve have lacked consistent depth all season, and until the swings and misses ramp up on both pitches, Verlander’s outings are liable to remain a volatile blend of dominance and blow-up innings. In his abbreviated outing last weekend, he showed signs of moving back toward the slightly higher slot that should allow him to get on top of his breaking pitches. That bodes well for the future. But, it’s hard to imagine he’s going to have things sorted out Saturday night.

Outlook

The Tigers have been one of the better teams against left-handers this season. And where Chris Sale is concerned, the Tigers have several guys who are always happy to see him on the mound. None more so than Victor Martinez.

The Tigers’ DH, who exploded for a big month of May, and has continued hitting in June, is the premier thorn in Sale’s side. J.D. Martinez has had plenty of success of his own, most notably a certain pinch-hit home run last August. Miguel Cabrera has hammered Sale as well, but is caught in one of the worst funks of his career. Still, with lefty mashing hitters like Mahtook, McCann and Iglesias in the lineup, the Tigers will likely have enough success to give themselves a chance to win this one.

Prediction

Under normal circumstances, this is a decent matchup for the Tigers. However, with Verlander an unknown, it’s tough to predict a Tigers victory. So...

The two teams engage in a tight, low-scoring contest early, but the Red Sox bullpen holds up, while the Tigers does not.