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Tigers vs. Indians Preview: Cleveland is starting to take control of the AL Central

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The Tigers hung close for a while, but Cleveland has now opened up a six game lead in the standings.

Cleveland Indians v Chicago White Sox Photo by Jon Durr/Getty Images

Well, it can’t get any worse than last night, right?

The Tigers had their momentum stalled somewhat after losing a pair of games in Cincinnati, but they rolled into Cleveland on Friday evening with a solid 6-4 record in their last 10 games, including a five-game win streak. They pulled within 2 12 games of the AL Central lead at one point, and were a couple of wins against the Indians from making the division race look like an actual race.

Then Friday happened. The Tigers lost 10-0, and are now staring at a three-game losing streak and a six-game deficit in the AL Central standings. Teams have made up that gap before, but with the Tigers mired in a rebuild and Cleveland a title contender, this type of gap seemed like a matter of time.

We’ve said this before, but this might actually be the point where the Tribe starts to run away with the AL Central lead. They are currently on a five-game win streak of their own, and have out-scored opponents 38-6 in that span. They are 11-5 in their past 16 games as well. With their schedule softening after a tough April and May — they have just one road series against a winning club in the second half — it wouldn’t be a surprise to see Cleveland start to push out even further in front of the pack.

Detroit Tigers (36-40) at Cleveland Indians (41-33)

Time/Place: 6:10 p.m., Progressive Field
SB Nation site: Let’s Go Tribe
Media: Fox Sports Detroit, MLB.TV, Tigers Radio Network
Pitching Matchup: LHP Francisco Liriano (3-2, 3.90 ERA) vs. RHP Trevor Bauer (6-5, 2.50 ERA)

Game 77 Pitching Matchup

Pitcher IP K% BB% FIP fWAR
Pitcher IP K% BB% FIP fWAR
Liriano 57.2 19.2 12.4 4.95 0.2
Bauer 100.2 31.2 8.0 2.28 3.6

We’ve documented the subtle improvements in Trevor Bauer’s game already this year — this is already his fourth start against Detroit in 2018 — but seeing him maintain those numbers is impressive. He has the eighth-highest strikeout rate among qualified MLB pitchers this season, and the 11th-best K-BB%. His home run rate is roughly one-third of what he produced last season, resulting in the best FIP in the American League. He’s third in the AL in fWAR, and seventh in rWAR.

Basically, he’s a Cy Young contender.

While a lot of Tigers fans are hoping he doesn’t win the award, their team has put up little resistance on that front. He has limited them to a 1.17 ERA through three starts this year, with just three earned runs in 23 innings. He has 29 strikeouts to just three walks in these outings, and is limiting the Tigers lineup to a poor .209/.244/.267 line.

There’s not much of a silver lining here either. Bauer has been a strikeout machine lately, racking up 10 strikeouts or more in five of his last seven starts, two of those against the Tigers. He had four consecutive starts with 11 punchouts or more prior to his last outing, in which he “only” struck out eight hitters in seven innings. He has been knocked around a bit — he gave up seven runs (three earned) in a start back on June 2 — but the hapless Tigers lineup has not given me any reason to believe they can turn things around against Bauer this time.

Key matchup: Francisco Liriano vs. trade value

This is Liriano’s first major league start since May 26, when he was placed on the disabled list with a hamstring strain. He was pitching well prior to that point, but was roughed up a bit by the Chicago White Sox in that last start. With just over a month remaining until the trade deadline, Liriano and the Tigers would benefit immensely from a few solid starts to show that he can be a healthy and effective rotation piece for teams down the stretch. The Seattle Mariners are already sniffing around Detroit’s rotation, and Liriano could be a cheaper alternative for them if the Tigers balk at their offers for Matthew Boyd.

Prediction

Bauer and the Tribe win in a rout.

Gameday reading