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Tigers vs. Cubs Preview: Detroit could have a say in the 2018 NL Central race

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The Tigers still have series remaining against the Cubs, Brewers, and Cardinals this season.

MLB: Detroit Tigers at Chicago Cubs Patrick Gorski-USA TODAY Sports

The American League’s Central division might already be wrapped up, but there are still a few playoff races to be found around baseball. One such race is in the NL Central, where there are three teams within 3 12 games of first. The Chicago Cubs, who will visit Comerica Park for a two-game set this week, are still leading the pack. They have been in first since July 13, but haven’t been able to pull away. Just behind them are the Milwaukee Brewers and St. Louis Cardinals.

There are a number of common threads linking those three teams, but here’s one relevant to our interests; all three teams still have series remaining against the Tigers this season. Detroit certainly won’t be the lone decision-maker in this tight NL Central race — the Cubs and Brewers will play more games against one another than against the Tigers down the stretch — but it’s still an interesting wrinkle to throw in for a Detroit club otherwise just playing out the string in 2018.

If we had to guess, the Brewers might have a slight leg up in these few games against the Tigers. Both the Cubs and Cardinals have to travel to Comerica Park, where the Tigers have been rather stingy this year. Meanwhile, Milwaukee gets three against Detroit right at the end of the season, when the Tigers might be thinking about offseason plans rather than the final few games of the year.

The Cubs are first, though. Can Detroit start to play spoiler on Tuesday?

Chicago Cubs (71-52) at Detroit Tigers (51-74)

Time/Place: 7:10 p.m., Comerica Park
SB Nation site: Bleed Cubbie Blue
Media: Fox Sports Detroit, MLB.TV, Tigers Radio Network
Pitching Matchup: RHP Kyle Hendricks (9-9, 4.11 ERA) vs. RHP Jordan Zimmermann (5-5, 4.36 ERA)

Game 126 Pitching Matchup

Pitcher IP K% BB% FIP fWAR
Pitcher IP K% BB% FIP fWAR
Hendricks 144.2 20.4 6.0 4.15 1.7
Zimmermann 88.2 20.7 4.3 4.29 1.2

The last time the Tigers faced off against Kyle Hendricks, I couldn’t really figure out why the 28-year-old righthander was struggling. He had looked like his usual self in April and May, but June was largely a disaster. At the time, he had a 4.21 ERA with advanced metrics in the same neighborhood. Seven weeks later, not much has changed. Hendricks’ ERA is nearly identical, and his results have been consistently mediocre during that span; he has just three quality starts in his last nine appearances.

Hendricks’ ERA doesn’t tell the whole story, though. He has found his strikeout touch, fanning 53 batters in his last 52 23 innings. He also has just seven walks in those nine starts, resulting in a stellar 2.76 FIP since the start of July. He has even limited home runs, with just four allowed in that nine-start span. Hendricks’ biggest “problem” during this stretch might just be bad luck. Opponents have managed a .349 batting average on balls in play (BABIP) despite a ground ball rate above 47 percent.

Even if Hendricks doesn’t figure out how to limit all these seeing-eye singles, the run support might be enough to keep him afloat; the Cubs have scored over five runs per game for him since he last pitched against Detroit, and are 7-2 in those nine outings.

Key matchup: Jordan Zimmermann vs. doing the opposite of whatever I say

Those who have read these previews consistently this year know that I have been baffled by Zimmermann all season long. His strikeout and walk numbers have been consistently solid this year, but the results have not. The real answer for his issues lies somewhere between “gives up too many dingers” and “just kinda sucks for one inning a game” but predicting exactly how and when those problems will strike has been the bane of my existence in 2018.

Take his last start, for instance. Zimmermann looked to be back on track for the zillionth time this year after holding the Minnesota Twins to two unearned runs in 6 13 innings on August 10, but the lowly White Sox tagged him for six runs on nine hits just five days later. And yet, he still struck out four without walking a batter in five innings. Go figure.

Prediction

Zimmermann’s up-and-down season continues with another loss.

Gameday reading