Detroit Tigers manager Jim Leyland probably won’t admit it, given that these two clubs will face off a dozen more times this season, but this week’s three game set with the Cleveland Indians is about as big a series as the Tigers have played this year.
Leyland’s actions, however, have said more than his words will. By opting to skip right hander Brad Penny on Thursday and giving that start to Justin Verlander, Leyland is setting up his ace to face the Indians in each of the next two series that the clubs play against each other. Had Verlander not been slotted into this series, it would have been virtually impossible to work him into the next one.
Joining Verlander (who will face Fausto Carmona) on the hill for Detroit this week will be newcomer Doug Fister and right hander Rick Porcello. Fister will match-up with Justin Masterson in Tuesday’s series opener and Porcello gets Ubaldo Jimenez on Wednesday. These match-ups are exactly what you hope to see from two clubs battling for a division crown. No fifth starters, no rookies, only the best each club can provide; complete with a trade deadline acquisition for each.
The Indians raced out to a 30-15 start and made a statement early on by sweeping the visiting Tigers on the final weekend of April. At the conclusion of that series, The Tribe’s lead in the division was 4.5 games over Kansas City and 7.5 games over Detroit. The Tigers took two of three from Cleveland in Detroit in mid-June.
Fister will make his second start with the Tigers, but it will be the third time he’s faced the Tribe this year. In two previous outings (both while with Seattle), Fister has held the Indians to three earned runs over 14 innings, allowing 10 hits and striking out nine. He’s 0-1 with a sparkling 1.93 against the Tribe this year, including an eight inning, four-hit, two earned run performance at Progressive Field on May 13. While he has never beaten the Indians, Fister has a 3.16 ERA in four career starts against Cleveland and 2.51 ERA in two starts at Progressive Field.
The Tigers have been successful in reaching base versus Masterson this year, collecting 14 hits and seven walks in only 13.1 innings. But the sinkerballer has largely kept the Tigers off the scoreboard, allowing only four earned runs (2.25 ERA) during that time. Detroit will have to take better advantage of opportunities tomorrow night if they intend to put Cleveland in a deeper hole.
Despite a pair of former 19-game winners facing off in Carmona and Verlander on Thursday, the marquee match-up is the middle game when Porcello takes on another former 19-game winner in Jimenez. Porcello is 5-0 in his last six starts, posting a 3.26 ERA over his last 38.2 innings. He has never lost to the Tribe, posting a 4-0 record and 2.32 ERA over eight career starts. Five of those outings have come in Cleveland, where Porcello’s been even better with an ERA of just 1.64.
Jimenez got a win against Detroit while with the Rockies this June, but allowed three runs and 10 baserunners in just five innings of work. That effort came at Coors Field, however, and Jimenez has been much better this season when not pitching at altitude. He’s made three career starts against the Tigers, but hasn’t been very good. In only 16 innings, Detroit has knocked him around to the tune of 23 hits, six walks, and ten earned runs (5.32 ERA). Two of those games came in Detroit, where Jimenez had to face a full American League lineup, and the results were 15 hits and seven runs in 11 innings of work. Not only will this game mark his home debut for the Indians, but also the first time he’s ever taken the hill at Progressive Field at all.
If the match-ups in the first two games of the series seem slanted in favor of Detroit, the finale has a chance to be the best of the bunch. No, really. For all his struggles over the past few years, Carmona has remained a consistent performer when facing the Tigers. In his career, he’s posted an 8-4 record versus Detroit (15 starts) with an ERA of 3.48. Dating back to 2009, Carmona has an overall ERA of 4.85, but in his six starts against the Tigers in that span, he’s been at a much more palatable 3.32 over 38 innings pitched. Earlier this year, Carmona beat the Tigers by allowing two runs on seven hits over five innings of work.
Verlander’s most recent start against Cleveland came close to making history. On June 14, Verlander took a no-hit bid into the eighth before a single by Orlando Cabrera broke it up. The Tigers went on to win behind a two-hit, 12 strikeout shutout from Verlander in a game that moved the Tigers into first place. Early in his career, Verlander often struggled against the Tribe, but over his last 11 starts against them (dating back to 2009), he’s 7-1 with a 2.54 ERA. If Verlander is as dominating as he can be, there isn’t a pitcher in his class. But if he’s off just a bit, as he was in his last start versus Kansas City, Carmona has shown an ability to keep his club in the game, especially when facing the Tigers.
With a full four game lead, Detroit is obviously in a great position as these two clubs meet. Even if they wind up getting swept, they’ll still hold a one-game edge in the race. On the flip side, a sweep by the Tigers would all but bury the Indians at seven games back. Anything short of a Tigers’ sweep will mean only that this race won’t be decided for quite a while yet.