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Tigers vs. Indians Preview: Michael Fulmer and the bullpen seek to stop the bleeding

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If the Tigers get swept today, they will fall below .500.

MLB: Kansas City Royals at Detroit Tigers Raj Mehta-USA TODAY Sports

One week ago today, Detroit completed a three-game road sweep of the Pittsburgh Pirates in a 2-1 victory to move to 8-5 on the season. Following the game, I wrote, “The next two weeks will tell a lot about this team as Detroit plays 13 games against the White Sox and the Cleveland Indians.” Since then, the Tigers lost C.J. Cron for the season, sent Iván Nova to the 10-day injured list due to right triceps tendinitis, dropped two out of three to the Chicago White Sox at home, and dropped the first two games in their current three-game series with Cleveland. General manager Al Avila also indicated that he has no interest in calling up top prospect Casey Mize, which also implied that Detroit fans won’t see fellow top prospects Matt Manning or Tarik Skubal any time soon, either.

Needless to say, this has been a particular bad week for the 2020 Detroit Tigers season. The team’s playoff odds have fallen from 39.2 percent on Monday to 17.9 percent entering today’s game, per FanGraphs, and Detroit is on the verge of a three-game sweep versus Cleveland. Before we get ahead of ourselves and declare Detroit’s season dead, however, let’s take a step back for just a moment. Entering this week, 3-3 seemed like a realistic target for six games against the White Sox and Cleveland. 4-2 or better would have been a pleasant surprise, and it’s not too surprising that Detroit didn’t come close to this mark given C.J. Cron’s injury and Iván Nova’s comparatively poor outing that was likely affected by injury.

Nevertheless, this is a very important game for the Tigers. Detroit has now dropped 19 straight games to the Cleveland Indians, and a 1-5 stretch in their first six divisional games would drop the team below .500 as they continue into another seven games against the White Sox and Cleveland (not to mention seven games against the Cubs and Twins immediately following those series). Today is a must-win game for Detroit, and they will send out Michael Fulmer and the bullpen in an attempt to stop the bleeding.

Cleveland Indians (12-9) at Detroit Tigers (9-9)

Time/Place: 1:10 pm, Comerica Park
SB Nation site: Let’s Go Tribe
Media: Fox Sports Detroit, MLB.TV, Tigers Radio Network
Probables: RHP Adam Plutko (1-1, 2.45 ERA) vs. RHP Michael Fulmer (0-0, 6.35 ERA)

Game 20 Pitching Matchup

Pitcher IP K% BB% FIP fWAR
Pitcher IP K% BB% FIP fWAR
Boyd 19.1 18.8% 8.3% 6.19 -0.1
Gonzalez 16.1 16.7% 9.5% 6.44 -0.1

Adam Plutko will fill in for another start with Cleveland today following Mike Clevinger and Zach Plesac’s demotion for breaking COVID-19 protocol. Plutko had lost the fifth spot in the rotation to Plesac at the beginning of the season, but has found himself right back into the rotation (and publicly held his teammates accountable while he was at it). The 27-year-old started 20 games for Cleveland last season, posting a 0.7 fWAR, 4.86 ERA, and 5.23 FIP in 109 13 innings.

Detroit, meanwhile, will give Michael Fulmer his third start since his return from Tommy John Surgery. Fulmer blew up in his first start of the season, allowing three home runs and four earned runs total to the Kansas City Royals in just 2 23 innings pitched, but bounced back with a scoreless three-inning performance against the White Sox on Monday. Fulmer has only posted 5 23 innings and four strikeouts on the season, but this was expected heading into the season. The Tigers are being careful not to overwhelm their 2016-2018 ace in his return from surgery, as we have already seen one star pitcher get injured in his return from Tommy John Surgery this season with Shohei Ohtani.

With Fulmer only set to pitch a portion of this game, Detroit will need their bullpen to come through in today’s game. Manager Ron Gardenhire pitched three of his best relievers so far this year in John Schreiber (0.00 ERA), José Cisnero (2.61 ERA), and Bryan Garcia (2.45 ERA) in yesterday’s outing, but Gardenhire’s high-leverage options, minus injured set-up man Buck Farmer, should be available today.

Key Match-Up: Tigers Hitting vs. Adam Plutko

Adam Plutko threw 23 innings against Detroit in four starts last year, posting a 3.91 ERA and striking out 22 while walking five. Despite Plutko only averaging around 6.4 strikeouts per nine innings in 2019, he nearly struck out a batter per inning against Detroit’s miserable 2019 lineup. Detroit will likely need a decent amount of runs to pull out a victory today with Michael Fulmer throwing on a tight pitch count, even if Fulmer happens to recapture his 95-97 mph velocity from his start on Monday and pitch a few scoreless innings (which may be difficult, as Francisco Lindor, José Ramírez, and Carlos Santana have all hit over .300 against Fulmer in over 10 career head-to-head at-bats each). Can they do it with Harold Castro hitting second and Grayson Greiner hitting eighth? We’ll see.