After defeating the Tampa Bay Rays 5-3 this afternoon to finish their 10-game road trip with a 5-5 record – not too shabby considering the quality of the competition – which combined with a loss from the White Sox leaves Detroit only 3 games behind once again. Combine that 5-5 road trip with the previous 4 consecutive interleague series and the Tigers are 13-9 over their last 22 games. This hasn’t been due to a surge in offense (though a little of that is due to the 9 games in which Tigers pitchers had to flail wildly at the ball. I hate National League baseball) – over those 22 games the Tigers have averaged a little less than 4.5 runs per game and a .740 OPS. Not awful but really not a plus. The Tigers have found some success through pitching – with a team ERA of 3.38 over that stretch. If only the team hadn’t allowed 15 unearned runs over those 22, we’d really be getting somewhere.
Now the Tigers head home for 7 games before the All-Star Break. That’s 7 games against AL Central dregs Minnesota and Kansas City. If ever there was a time to hope for a 7-game streak, it would be now. If we lower our expectations just a hair, if the Tigers can win 4 of the 7 they will be a .500 team going into the break – not ideal but certainly not out of things.
Is it fair to call this stretch “critical”? In a sense all games are critical and in another sense games against other divisional contenders are doubly critical (since we not only want to win we want those specific teams to lose). The Twins and Royals – though really anything is possible – are unlikely to be the AL Central champion this year even should the Tigers be unable to climb back to the top of the heap. These games are critical only in the sense that the Tigers can’t reasonably hope to make the playoffs by beating teams like Boston and Tampa Bay but throwing games to awful teams like the Seattle Mariners (against whom the Tigers are 1-5 this season). The timing is also important – leading up to the All-Star break and the most intensive trading season prior to the non-waiver deadline at the end of the month. Whether the Tigers ought to buy or sell could be determined this week – or left an open question.
You’d like to say that the Tigers should have a pretty good chance to take both series and finish the season’s ‘first half’ not just at but over .500. That might not be true. For one thing – home field advantage around the league this year seems to have flat out disappeared. Look at the teams around the AL with better records on the road: Baltimore, Boston, Chicago, Detroit, Kansas City, Minnesota. For another thing – as our Tigers commentators have been pointing out several times per game in anticipation of the Royals series – Kansas City is well over .500 since their terrible April start and barely behind the Tigers in the Central. Minnesota, on the other hand, started losing and has continued losing. A couple of their key guys in Liriano and Mauer have started producing, but there is so little overall talent on that roster at this point that it hasn’t mattered much. Unfortunately, the several Twins players who are likely to be dealt during the month of July will probably still be around to face Detroit over the next 4 days.
SO… TWINS coming to town means time for Tigers bats to continue their recent liveliness. The Twins have a 4.92 ERA and the lowest pitcher WAR of any team in baseball. The poor Twins are also the only team to strike out fewer than 6 batters per game so far this season. The Twins have also struggled to hit on the road this year with an MLB-worst .636 road OPS. Add in that the Tigers will miss Francisco Liriano while the Twins miss Drew Smyly and personally I will be unsatisfied with less than a 3-1 series win – while hoping for the sacred 4-game sweep. The ROYALS coming to town is more of a reason for concern and or consternation. In addition to having winning months in May and June, the Royals have a 3.73 road ERA on the season and have scored more runs on the road than they have allowed. The same cannot be said for the Tigers at home.