While Tigers fans wait for the other shoe to drop, the squad continues to persevere through a swath of injuries. Jordan Zimmermann’s elbow issues are just the latest in a series of issues that have decimated the Tigers’ starting pitching depth before the calendar even turns to May. With Michael Fulmer and Matt Moore already done for the year, and swingman Blaine Hardy dealing with a forearm strain, they’re going to need a miracle to keep this up. Still, the Tigers are hanging in there. They split a four-game set with the Boston Red Sox this week to maintain a .500 record, and now they return to the friendly confines of a rather feeble AL Central division.
The White Sox have their own problems. Their pitching staff is every bit as much of a patchwork as the Tigers’ unit, and the South Siders have added miserable defense to the equation so far this season. While the addition of top prospect Eloy Jimenez should help the offense, this is still a bad team showcasing poor fundamental baseball. They have their best pitcher, southpaw Carlos Rodon, going on Friday night, but if the Tigers can pull this one out, there’s a good likelihood they can take the road series.
On the other side, if the Tigers have any hope of continuing their respectable ways, Daniel Norris is the key. The oft-injured 25-year-old made his season debut as a starter last Sunday against these same White Sox, and things went about as well as one could hope. After barely pitching over the season’s first three weeks, and only in sporadic low leverage relief appearances at that, Norris took the mound and spun the best game we’ve seen from him since late 2016. He struck out six Sox, allowing just two hits and a walk over five shutout innings.
If Norris is going to keep this up, his command needs to continue to improve. But, on the plus side, he made some steps in his quest to recapture the mechanics and velocity he showed in his first two seasons in Detroit. He comfortably sat 90-93 mph with the fastball, leaned on his bread and butter slider, and rediscovered his sharp, biting curveball in mastering an aggressive, young, White Sox lineup. Let’s hope he can do it again and start building a little traction. The Tigers need him now.
Detroit Tigers (12-12) at Chicago White Sox (9-14)
Time/Place: 8:10 p.m., Guaranteed Rate Field
SB Nation site: South Side Sox
Pitching Matchup: LHP Daniel Norris (1-0, 2.70 ERA) vs. LHP Carlos Rodón (3-2, 2.89 ERA)
Game 25 Pitching Matchup
Game 25 Pitching Matchup
It’s hard to believe Carlos Rodon is already in his fifth season in the major leagues. Selected by the White Sox in the first round of the 2014 amateur draft our of North Carolina State, Rodon was fast-tracked to the majors the next season as part of the Sox’s desperate attempts to compete in the Sale/Quintana era. While his ceiling was never regarded as holding ace potential, he was a low-risk college pitcher ready to contribute, and it didn’t take him long to have an impact.
Rodon posted a 3.87 FIP in 2015, and a 4.01 mark the next season. In 2017 he required shoulder surgery, missing most of the season. His return last year was marked by difficulties with command and only intermittent command of a once fine slider that has always been his out pitch. So far in 2019, Rodon appears to have put those issues in the rearview mirror. His velocity is down a little bit, but he’s made a move many starters are turning to, leaning out their best pitch more often. So far, Rodon’s slider usage is way up, and so is his strikeout rate, leading to some optimism that he may finally be coming into his own.
Walks remain an issue at just over 10 percent, but Rodon’s strikeout rate stands at 29.4 percent, the best mark of his career by far. Of course the southpaw is only 28 innings into his 2019 campaign, and those numbers have to hold up for a while before we can acknowledge a real, lasting change. The fastball and changeup are very hittable if Rodon isn’t precise, and he has a tendency to lose command for stretches during a start. If the Tigers’ right-handed bats can avoid being chewed up by Rodon’s plus slider, they’ve got a solid chance to do damage.
On April 19, Rodon got the victory over the Tigers with a strong six-inning start. He punched out six and walked three, but was able to limit the Tigers to just one run on three hits. A Josh Harrison solo shot was the only damage against him. But like Norris, Rodon now faces the challenge of dealing with the same offense in back-to-back starts. A weather cancellation last weekend, and an off day on Thursday, means that Rodon is also pitching on six days rest, an unusual and sometimes uncomfortable position for a starting pitcher. The samples are small, but Nicholas Castellanos and Miguel Cabrera have beat up him in their previous meetings. Keeping them in check is the key to success for Rodon.
Key Matchup: Daniel Norris vs. Daniel Norris
Norris has shown slightly improved velocity this season, but he’s not yet recaptured the consistent 93-95 mph fastball he had as recently as 2017. Perhaps more will come as he gets stretched out on a regular schedule for the first time in almost two years. But what he proved last Sunday was that the stuff is still plenty good enough to handle major league hitters as long he’s pitching aggressively and locating his fastball. The question is how consistently he’s able to do those things, and whether he’s able to course correct if his mechanics get out of whack at some point. Comeback trails are often filled with ups and downs, and while the White Sox’ offense is solid at best, how Norris fares against hitters who saw him less than a week ago may give an indication of just how well his stuff is rounding into form.
Norris and Rodon stalemate each other, but a worn-out Tigers’ pen crumbles in the late innings.