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Tigers vs. Astros Preview: Struggling Detroit offense faces another dominant starter

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Gerrit Cole has been one of baseball’s best pitchers in 2018.

MLB: Oakland Athletics at Houston Astros Troy Taormina-USA TODAY Sports

In past years, the Tigers would have their bad night against Dallas Keuchel and that would be the end of it. This scenario played out again on Friday, as the Tigers offense couldn’t break through against Keuchel despite putting plenty of runners on base. But normally, that would be their toughest matchup.

This year? It was their easiest, and by a wide margin. Less than 24 hours after getting blanked by Keuchel, the Tigers have to deal with righthander Gerrit Cole, a former No. 1 overall pick who is pitching like it this season. Cole was famously acquired from the Pittsburgh Pirates in a January deal that no one could seem to agree on. Given Cole’s performance so far, the Astros have clearly #wonthetrade, at least in 2018.

Meanwhile, the Tigers are falling apart. They are just 4-19 since moving within a game of .500 back in mid-June, and are baseball’s second-worst offense over the past month. Only the Kansas City Royals have been worse, while the Tigers still sit a whopping 26 percent below average. They have already struggled to score in Michael Fulmer’s starts, and might be even more hard-pressed to score runs given who they are facing in this game.

All-Star break, you can’t get here soon enough.

Detroit Tigers (40-56) at Houston Astros (63-34)

Time/Place: 4:10 p.m., Minute Maid Park
SB Nation site: The Crawfish Boxes
Media: Fox Sports Detroit, MLB.TV, Tigers Radio Network
Pitching Matchup: RHP Michael Fulmer (3-8, 4.11 ERA) vs. RHP Gerrit Cole (9-2, 2.57 ERA)

Game 97 Pitching Matchup

Pitcher IP K% BB% FIP fWAR
Pitcher IP K% BB% FIP fWAR
Fulmer 107.1 20.4 8.1 4.04 1.6
Cole 122.2 35.3 8.6 2.99 3.3

Gerrit Cole looked like an ace at times for the Pirates in his five seasons in Pittsburgh — he even won 19 games with a 2.60 ERA in 2015 — but he has taken things to another level this season. His 35.3 percent strikeout rate is by far the highest of his career, and he has a manageable walk rate to boot. Opponents are swinging and missing at 13.9 percent of the pitches he throws, also another career-best by a wide margin. Even his velocity is up.

On paper, the differences are subtle. Cole’s four-seam fastball usage isn’t much higher than what he has produced in recent years, but he has all but eliminated the two-seamer that the Pirates have preached under pitching coach Ray Searage. Instead, Cole has filled that void with sliders and curveballs, which he is burying lower in the zone.

Key matchup: Fulmer vs. commanding his slider

We have harped on Fulmer’s fastball command throughout the year, and that is still an issue. He has walked three batters in each of his last two starts, and hasn’t quite figured out the same level of pinpoint control he had at times in his first two seasons. However, that fix — whatever it is — almost goes without saying at this point. Along with the fastball, his slider will be a big key in this game, as the Astros are running out a fairly righty-heavy lineup these days. Their top four hitters in Friday’s game were all right-handed, with right-handed catcher Max Stassi further down the lineup. Righties have a .693 OPS against Fulmer this year, and have a .224 average against his slider. They are slugging .379 against it, though, with five extra-base hits in 58 at-bats. Given how dangerous this Astros lineup is, Fulmer really needs to spot his pitches well and keep the ball on the ground.

Prediction

The Tigers get shut out again.

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