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Tigers at Astros Preview: On the road with their backs against the wall

Day two of a brutal stretch of baseball finds the Tigers in the bad place and facing one of the better teams in the game.

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MLB: Texas Rangers at Detroit Tigers Tim Fuller-USA TODAY Sports

One of the tougher stretches of games on the schedule has arrived at exactly the wrong time. With three of their Opening Day starters already on the injured list, and a disastrous power outage from the offense, the 2022 Tigers are dangerously close to fumbling away even an outside shot at a playoff spot before they reach the 40-game mark.

The Tigers flew to Houston after Wednesday’s doubleheader concluded, to play a four game set beginning Thursday night. They’ll fly home Sunday night and start a six-day, seven game homestand with the Oakland Athletics, including a doubleheader on Tuesday, May 10, and the Baltimore Orioles who come to town for three. Then another flight after a Sunday game, heading south to Tampa Bay for three with the Rays. Finally they get a day off on the 19th, but they head right back out on the road for another 15 day stretch until June 4th.

The Tigers aren’t alone in this, of course. The late start is compressing the schedule, hence the expanded rosters, but for a team with a banged up rotation that needed to survive until some of their young arms return, things aren’t timing up well at all. Of course, if the team doesn’t start hitting home runs like they’re capable of, there isn’t going to be a lot the pitching staff can do.

Just to put it in cold numbers, the site Five-Thirty-Eight gave the Tigers a 12 percent chance at the playoffs before the season started. They’ve already whittled that down to five percent. Only six teams have worse odds at this point. Either the Tigers will really turn things around in May, or we’ll be fully into trade deadline talk by the time June arrives.

To make that happen, particularly with a pack of rookies taking two starts per turn through the rotation, the group of Eduardo Rodriguez, Tarik Skubal, and Michael Pineda are going to have to hold the rotation together. Skubal gets the ball on Thursday night for his fifth start coming off an excellent month of April. The Tigers will need him to keep it going against an Astros lineup that looks somewhat diminished without Carlos Correa.

Detroit Tigers (8-15) at Houston Astros (14-11)

Time/Place: 8:10 p.m., Minute Maid Park
SB Nation Site: The Crawfish Boxes
Media: Bally Sports Detroit, MLB.TV, Tigers Radio Network
Pitching Matchup: LHP Tarik Skubal (1-2, 3.05 ERA) vs. RHP Jose Urquidy (2-1, 5.95 ERA)

Game 24 Pitching Matchup

Pitcher IP FIP K% BB% HR/9 fWAR
Pitcher IP FIP K% BB% HR/9 fWAR
Skubal 20.2 1.57 22.7 3.4 0.0 0.9
Urquidy 19.2 5.01 15.1 3.5 1.83 0.0

Skubal’s strong start to the season obviously has some underlying weakness in that he hasn’t given up a single home run through 20 23 innings of work. Despite whatever the league has done to mess with the baseball again this year, that isn’t going to last. However, that’s not necessarily a serious looming problem, as his strikeout and walk numbers are pretty solid. Unless there’s a massive reversal in home run power around the league, Skubal probably isn’t going to come undone based on that issue alone, as he did in 2020 and sometimes in 2021 as well.

Skubal has used his slider more first pitch this season, making him less predictable, and isn’t throwing as many first pitch strikes either. Last year, hitters had about a 65 percent chance of seeing a first pitch strike, and it was usually a fastball. This year, Skubal is using all his pitches in a less predictable mix, including trading some fourseamers for more sinkers, and it’s worked wonders for him. Against an Astros’ offense that is still good, but weaker overall with Correa’s departure, Skubal should put together a solid outing in this one.

His opponent, 27-year-old Jose Urquidy, is going in the other direction. The right-hander’s already iffy strikeout numbers have collapsed through four starts, and a profile that was already pretty home run prone has seen a spike in homers despite the deadened baseball. This is all still small sample theater so early in the year, but the trends have undercut what was a decent mid-rotation profile and turned it into an accident waiting to happen each time out for the Astros’ rotation under new pitching coaches Joshua Miller and Bill Murphy.

Urquidy’s Statcast page is looking pretty ghastly at this point. He’s trying to mix in a new cutter, trimming his changeup and slider usage, but the whiff rates on all his pitches are down, and he’s giving up a pretty scary level of velocity off the bat. The new cutter, however, is getting a ton of whiffs despite getting hit hard in a few cases, perhaps illustrating a light at the end of this tunnel as he alters his pitch mix to favor the cutter over the old slider.

Pretty much everything Urquidy throws features big time horizontal movement. He uses the cutter and slider against right-handers, while mixing in a pretty average curveball against lefties that tends to function as more of a changeup than his actual changeup does. He still throws a high ratio of strikes and doesn’t issue free passes, but as pitch to contact type who depends on his defense, an already weak profile is looking particularly bad in the early going.

Don’t expect an easy time, as obviously few teams have had as much trouble making hard contact as the Tigers. But Urquidy is vulnerable, and with their best starter on the mound, this is a game they need to win. Most Tigers hitters haven’t face Urquidy before, so even the usual meager matchup data isn’t really applicable. Hopefully Skubal does his thing, and the warmer weather sparks something in the Tigers’ bats.