Two years ago, the Detroit Tigers entered a series against the Tampa Bay Rays at a crossroads. At 48-50 after a series against the Boston Red Sox at Fenway Park, they were falling out of the playoff picture in short order. Those Tigers had gone from five games behind in the AL Central race to 11 1⁄2 games out in a span of just three weeks. After two more losses at the hands of the Rays, they decided to sell at the trade deadline. We know the result: the reigning AL Rookie of the Year, two promising lefthanders, the current starting center fielder, and a potential relief ace brewing in the minors.
This year’s situation bears a slight resemblance to that situation. The 2017 Tigers are on the precipice of falling out of the playoff race, having lost three consecutive series (including one against those pesky Red Sox). They are entering another series against the Rays — this time at Comerica Park, not Tropicana Field — with one directive: win now, or the selling begins.
Things aren’t quite as dire as they were in 2015, though. For one, it’s still only the middle of June. The Tigers are only four games behind the Minnesota Twins for first place in the AL Central, and have plenty of time to make up ground. The Cleveland Indians might be an outright favorite just as the 2015 Kansas City Royals were, but have not put all the pieces together quite yet.
Still, the pressure is probably starting to build for Detroit. They have a four-game series against the Rays, then a west coast trip to face two sub-.500 clubs, before a run of 10 games against divisional opponents (13 in all) before the All-Star break. If the Tigers cannot start to make up ground then, especially against some meager competition, the front office may grow too impatient to let them sort things out in the back half of July.
These Rays are no slouches, of course. They are 35-33 with a +19 run differential that is fourth-best in the American League. But the Tigers don’t have much more time for excuses. They need to start winning soon if they want to stay in the playoff hunt.
Game 1: RHP Alex Cobb (5-5, 4.29 ERA) vs. RHP Justin Verlander (4-4, 4.68 ERA)
Alex Cobb’s full-season return from Tommy John surgery doesn’t look to have gone to plan, but he has the Seattle Mariners to blame for that. At the start of June, Cobb had managed a respectable 3.67 ERA, though a meager strikeout rate had left him with a slightly higher FIP, at 4.22. The Mariners tagged Cobb for nine runs on 14 hits in that early June meeting, ballooning his ERA to 4.52. He enjoyed a nice bounce-back outing against the Oakland Athletics in his last start, but his 4.29 ERA is still a bit higher than what he had sustained for the first two months of the year. He has been significantly better against the Tigers throughout his career, limiting them to just nine runs (eight earned) in five starts.
Game 2: RHP Erasmo Ramirez (3-1, 4.20 ERA) vs. LHP Daniel Norris (3-4, 4.41 ERA)
Given how much the Tigers struggled with Matt Andriese in their first meeting back in April, one might think they would be lucky that he is currently missing in action on the disabled list. However, their performance against Erasmo Ramirez two days later doesn’t inspire much confidence. The right-handed swingman limited them to a run on just two hits in five innings, sealing one of the more disgusting sweeps this Tigers teams has seen in recent years. Ramirez has been very average since that date, and downright awful recently; he has given up 11 runs on 23 hits in just 12 1⁄3 innings in his last three starts.
Game 3: RHP Chris Archer (4-4, 3.80 ERA) vs. RHP Michael Fulmer (6-4, 3.40 ERA)
Good news! Detroit will miss Tiger-killer Jake Odorizzi in this series, a righthander who has a 2.28 ERA and a 4.00 strikeout-to-walk ratio in four career starts against the Tigers.
The bad news? They still have to face Chris Archer, who is doing his usual Chris Archer thing to opposing lineups this season. He has fanned 114 batters in just 92 1⁄3 innings, the third-highest raw total in baseball this year. He is one of four qualified MLB pitchers with a strikeout rate of 30 percent or better — former Tiger Robbie Ray is among this group — and Archer’s 22.1 K-BB% ranks sixth among qualified starters. Only Red Sox ace Chris Sale trumps Archer in the above categories in the American League.
Teams have been able to score runs off Archer, though. He has allowed at least four runs in five of his 14 starts, including a four-run outing against Detroit back on April 19.
Game 4: RHP Jacob Faria (2-0, 1.42 ERA) vs. RHP Buck Farmer (2-0, 3.52 ERA)
For years, the Rays were praised for their drafting and development strategies that led to the team’s resurgence a decade ago, including a berth in the 2009 World Series. That praise ran dry in recent years when the team’s success robbed them of the upper level first round picks that comprised so much of that core in the late aughts.
Things seem to be turning around, though. Jacob Faria is one such example, a 10th round pick out of a California high school in 2011. Faria rose steadily through the minors and got the Rays’ attention with an eye-popping 84 strikeouts in 54 2⁄3 innings for Triple-A Durham to open the 2017 season. He was called up in early June (to serve as Andriese’s actual replacement, as it were) and has allowed a pair of runs in his first two starts, wins over the Chicago White Sox and Toronto Blue Jays. He pairs a solid fastball with a mix of off-speed pitches that have resulted in 13 strikeouts across his first two starts.
Who’s hot: Mallex Smith
It’s all BABIP right now. Smith won’t continue hitting .348 or getting on base at a .412 clip, and his 142 wRC+ in 15 games this season is a complete mirage. However, the speedy outfielder has filled in capably for an injured Kevin Kiermaier, scoring eight runs and stealing four bases in his last six games. He has been worth 0.5 fWAR in his brief playing time thus far, and that’s without the benefit of defensive metrics that will undoubtedly fall in love with him as he plays more innings. Smith is the center fielder the Tigers need, but we instead get to watch him run down long flyouts from Miguel Cabrera and Nick Castellanos this weekend.
Who’s not: Steven Souza
The Rays have earned a lot of flak for acquiring Souza in a trade that also featured Wil Myers and Trea Turner, but the toolsy outfielder has finally put things together in 2017. He is striking out at a 28.8 percent rate, but has drawn a boatload of walks while hitting 11 home runs and playing above average defense.
He has been struggling lately, though. Souza is hitting just .190 in his last 12 games, with a 31.4 percent strikeout rate. However, his production has been buoyed by a walk rate north of 17 percent, a common occurrence for a Rays offense that ranks sixth in baseball with a 9.5 percent walk rate. Their 107 wRC+ for the season ranks fourth, and they are third in overall production (115 wRC+) over the past month.
So, yeah, Souza’s not hot right now. But he has been, and few others are running cold for this team.
How the Tigers win this series