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Detroit at Cleveland preview: Tigers battle to break their Progressive Field curse

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This is a winnable matchup but once again, Cleveland rolls out another overperforming young starter.

Detroit Tigers v Los Angeles Angels Photo by Michael Owens/Getty Images

The Detroit Tigers have been owned by the Cleveland Indians for so long that it’s difficult to remember a time when things were otherwise. During their four consecutive AL Central titles from 2011-2014, they beat up on Cleveland with regularity, but starting in 2015, fortunes have been decisively reversed.

From 2015 through 2019, the Tigers lost 58 of 75 games in the matchup. In August 2020, they finally snapped a 20-game losing streak against Cleveland. They went 3-7 against them in 2020. They’re 3-8 against them so far in 2021. You get the idea.

Most frustrating is the fact that Cleveland isn’t even that good a team anymore. Sure they relentlessly roll out good pitching, but that pitching tends to feast on the Tigers in particular. A pretty mediocre offensive unit seems to perk up whenever the two clubs meet. On Tuesday night, Terry Francona and the Cleveland Pitching Factory will send another unheralded starter blooming under their guidance to the mound looking to continue their dominance. The Tigers have handled the Houston Astros this year, but struggled to deal with the Chicago White Sox. The Cleves should not be this big a problem, but here we are...

Unfortunately, the pitching matchups are not working out in the Tigers favor. Casey Mize and Tarik Skubal won’t pitch in this series, and rookie Matt Manning was soundly drubbed in Monday night’s contest. The Tigers have Wily Peralta and a long day for the bullpen inked for Wednesday. It would really help if José Ureña could find some of his early-season form tonight.

Through mid-May, Ureña was off to a fantastic start. After a rough debut, his next six starts were quite good, with no team scoring more than two runs against him. Four times in that stretch he went seven innings, and his strikeout rate was near career highs as Ureña showed the best slider of his career. Sadly, that all came to an end with a bout of forearm tightness that he pinned on his greater slider usage.

Since that point, Ureña hasn’t even been able to pitch deep into a game, let alone shut down an offense. He’s always been a relatively low-spin pitcher, so it’s unlikely he had to adapt to the lessened grip on the baseball. The hope is that he’s simply struggled to get his feel for the slider back and that it will eventually come. Without it, his only attribute is home run prevention and ground balls with the outcomes largely resting on batted ball luck and defense, the latter of which is not a Tigers specialty, particularly in the middle infield.

Detroit Tigers (34-45) vs. Cleveland Indians (42-33)

Time/Place: 7:10 p.m., Progressive Field
SB Nation site: Covering the Corner
Media: Bally Sports Detroit, MLB.TV, Tigers Radio Network
Pitching Matchup: RHP José Ureña (2-8, 6.00 ERA) vs. RHP J.C. Mejía (1-2, 4.94 ERA)

Game 79 Pitching Matchup

Pitcher IP FIP K% BB% HR/9 fWAR
Pitcher IP FIP K% BB% HR/9 fWAR
Ureña 69.0 4.77 13.2 10.1 0.91 0.5
Mejia 23.2 3.27 23.7 7.5 0.76 0.4

As for the 24-year-old J.C. Mejía, his rookie season is going reasonably well so far. Mejía didn’t have overpowering stuff and his minor league career was good, but not the stuff of a top prospect. However, after an injury-shortened 2019 campaign, Mejía emerged in 2020 as a much better pitcher, showcasing improved stuff and command. That has proved out through five starts and eight total appearances this season.

Mejía is a big right-hander, but a relatively short strider with a pretty good low 90’s sinker. He keeps the ball on the ground and, so far this year at least, has shown pretty good command typical of a Cleveland starter. He’ll front door lefties with it and work inside to right-handed hitters, running the heater in on their hands.

The big improvement the past two years for him has been his slider and his command. It’s not a plus pitch to the eye, but Mejía has spotted it very well this season, getting his share of whiffs as well as plenty of weak contact. He’ll mix in a changeup to lefties, but it doesn’t have much velocity separation and tends to look like a slower version of the sinker. The Tigers should put the ball in play quite a bit tonight, but they’re going to need some batted ball luck and their speed on the bases to really get to Mejía for a big inning.

Key Matchup: Ureña vs. his defenders

We’ve said this a lot in Ureña previews over the past six weeks, but it’s the crux of the matter. If the Tigers' defense, particularly the middle infield, manages to put together a clean game, Ureña can still be a really frustrating starter to face. Things would be better if he could recapture his breaking ball, but for now, we’ll hope for a few quick innings early. If the Tigers can give him a lead and finally put the pressure on the Clevelanders, the back of the bullpen is looking plenty capable of holding a lead late. If the Tigers give away bases and outs? Yeah, they’re going to get trucked again.