April 2013

Tuesday: Tigers vs. Twins

Standard Tigers lineup, with Torii Hunter back batting second and Andy Dirks back down to sixth.

TIGERS

  1. Austin Jackson, CF (1-for-3 off Vance Worley)
  2. Torii Hunter, RF (2-for-3 off Worley)
  3. Miguel Cabrera, 3B (0-for-3 off Worley)
  4. Prince Fielder, 1B (2-for-6, K off Worley)
  5. Victor Martinez, DH (0-for-3, K off Worley)
  6. Andy Dirks, LF (0-for-2, walk off Worley)
  7. Jhonny Peralta, SS (2-for-3, K off Worley)
  8. Alex Avila, C (0-for-3, K off Worley)
  9. Omar Infante, 2B (2-for-9 off Worley)

P: Justin Verlander

TWINS

  1. Eduardo Escobar, 2B (1-for-1 off Verlander)
  2. Joe Mauer, C (22-for-59, 3 HR, 12 walks, 9 K’s off Verlander)
  3. Josh Willingham, DH (1-for-11, 5 K’s off Verlander)
  4. Justin Morneau, 1B (12-for-45, 2 HR, 5 walks, 13 K’s off Verlander)
  5. Chris Parmelee, RF (2-for-7, HR, walk, 3 K’s off Verlander)
  6. Trevor Plouffe, 3B (3-for-17, 5 K’s off Verlander)
  7. Oswaldo Arcia, LF
  8. Wilkin Ramirez, CF
  9. Pedro Florimon, SS (1-for-4, walk, K off Verlander)

P: Vance Worley

Game 24: Scherzer throws Twins a curve

Max Scherzer did little to dampen his strikeout rate Monday, fanning 10 Minnesota Twins over 7 1/3 innings. Neither Justin Morneau nor Joe Mauer accounted for any of them.

That’s fine for Scherzer. More important for him, they didn’t account for any hits. You can make the case that had more of an impact on his bottom line than the strikeouts.

Alex Avila didn’t want to choose which was more important.

“Both,” he said.

Morneau and Mauer are a major reason why Scherzer had a 5.40 career ERA and a 3-2 record in nine starts against the Twins over the last three years. They were a combined 13-for-30 with four home runs and five walks.

Scherzer has been progressively better against the Twins with each season. A big reason has been his success against Minnesota’s left-handed hitters, including those two. On Monday, he had a curveball for them.

Actually, he had several of them. That, he says, was his answer. It has been largely a show-me pitch for him since last summer, but after an adjustment, it was a big pitch for him Monday.

“Honestly, it was my curveball tonight,” Scherzer said. “That’s a pitch I’ve really been working on. I knew coming that they have a lot of good left-handed hitters. In my bullpen session, [pitching coach Jeff Jones] gave me a little tip to help improve my grip so that I can be more consistent with that pitch. It worked in the pen, so over the past couple days I’ve been throwing it. I thought this was going to be a good pitch for me tonight and it was.”

The data on MLB.com Gameday does not show a curveball, only sliders for breaking balls. The pitches around 79-82 mph, he said, were curveballs. There were up to a dozen of those on the data, according to brooksbaseball.net.

“I think I threw about 10-12 curveballs, and they were pretty consistent,” Scherzer said. “I don’t think I had any strikeouts on it. I was able to throw it for a strike where it was competitive or it was just missing. So for me, that threw a whole wrinkle in there that they had to now respect for me to be able to throw that curveball. I feel like when I can do that, it gives me a third pitch for a lefty that allows my fastball and changeup to be effective.”

Play of the game: It’s not difficult to make a good case for Prince Fielder’s go-ahead three-run homer in the sixth inning, but there’s an argument that Andy Dirks’ leadoff bunt single two batters earlier was the spark that started it all. It was a reaction to third baseman Trevor Plouffe playing back, and it put a runner on for Mike Pelfrey to worry about as he pitched against Miguel Cabrera.

“It’s taking advantage of what’s given to you,” said third-base coach Tom Brookens, who handles the bunting game.

Out of the game: Scherzer stayed in for the first batter of the eighth with the top of the Twins order coming up, pitting him against Brian Dozier with his pitch count already at 108. Scherzer had to go to a full count, but struck out Dozier swinging at a 94 mph fastball on his 114th and final pitch. With nobody on for Mauer, Drew Smyly and Joaquin Benoit took it from there.

Monday: Tigers vs. Twins

In case you missed it, Jim Leyland said last night that Torii Hunter would be off today. With right-hander Mike Pelfrey on the mound, that means a start for Don Kelly. Andy Dirks, meanwhile, returns to the lineup in left field after missing the weekend with lingering soreness in his right knee. Interestingly, Leyland said today he does believe the knee affected Dirks at the plate, though Dirks said Sunday he didn’t want to make excuses.

TIGERS

  1. Austin Jackson, CF (2-for-4, 2 walks, K vs. Pelfrey)
  2. Andy Dirks, LF (2-for-3, HR vs. Pelfrey)
  3. Miguel Cabrera, 3B (3-for-11, 4 walks vs. Pelfrey)
  4. Prince Fielder, 1B (5-for-14, HR, 2 walks vs. Pelfrey)
  5. Victor Martinez, DH (3-for-5, walk vs. Pelfrey)
  6. Jhonny Peralta, SS (1-for-4, walk vs. Pelfrey)
  7. Alex Avila, C (1-for-3, walk, K vs. Pelfrey)
  8. Omar Infante, 2B (15-for-30, 2 walks, K vs. Pelfrey)
  9. Don Kelly, RF (1-for-4, walk vs. Pelfrey)

P: Max Scherzer

TWINS

  1. Brian Dozier, 2B (0-for-2, 2 K’s off Scherzer)
  2. Joe Mauer, C (8-for-20, HR, walk, K off Scherzer)
  3. Josh Willingham, DH (4-for-15, HR, walk, 6 K’s off Scherzer)
  4. Justin Morneau, 1B (5-for-10, 3 HR, 4 walks off Scherzer)
  5. Chris Parmelee, RF (1-for-2, walk off Scherzer)
  6. Trevor Plouffe, 3B (0-for-7, walk, 5 K’s off Scherzer)
  7. Oswaldo Arcia, LF
  8. Aaron Hicks, CF
  9. Pedro Florimon, SS (0-for-2, K off Scherzer)

P: Mike Pelfrey

Game 23: Cabrera gets the rare 3-0 homer

If Jim Leyland has said it once, he has said it 100 times: He has given more green lights to swing on 3-0 counts in Detroit than he did in any of his other managerial stops. Most players don’t feel comfortable swinging at 3-0 pitches.

Miguel Cabrera and Prince Fielder have standing green lights on 3-0 counts, Leyland said.

“I never give Miguel the take, him and Prince,” Leyland said, “unless you think the game’s a lopsided game where you don’t want to get somebody hit or something like that.”

Yet Cabrera is much more likely to take than to swing on 3-0. A big part of the reason is the opposing pitcher. If a pitcher gets to a 3-0 count on Cabrera, he’s far more likely to just give him ball four than throw a get-me-over pitch for strike one.

Out of 6,583 career plate appearances, Cabrera has had a 3-0 count 469 times. On 255 occasions, he has walked on the next pitch, 154 times intentionally. On 83 other occasions, he has walked on a 3-1 or 3-2 pitch, while he has 131 at-bats after a 3-0 count.

How many times has Cabrera put the 3-0 pitch in play? Try 13, seven of them as a Tiger. His only previous extra-base hit off a 3-0 pitch was a 2009 home run off Minnesota’s Anthony Swarzak.

On Sunday, he got a rare get-me-over fastball from Cory Gearrin and lined it into the right-field seats for a three-run homer. In so doing, he demonstrated why most pitchers would rather walk him on 3-0.

“I thought he might swing,” Leyland said. “He’s smart, but he didn’t try to do too much with it. But at the same time, most guys that would’ve gone to right field in that situation, they might have got a single, maybe a double. Like I’ve said, he’s the best I’ve ever seen opposite field power, so it didn’t surprise me. I mean, that was just a lined shot out of the ballpark. Not many guys can do that.”

That makes him 6-for-13 for his career when he puts a 3-0 pitch in play. Even if you take the intentional walk out of consideration, he’s ten times more likely to walk than put the pitch in play.

“He knows when it’s the right situation to swing 3-0,” Cabrera said. “Sometimes we need a guy on base and he makes sure we take. It’s baseball.”

Play of the game: Omar Infante’s second home run in as many games was technically an insurance run, but the solo shot was actually the catalyst for a four-run seventh-inning rally. If not for his drive to left, the inning doesn’t continue for the top of the order to set the table for Cabrera’s homer.

Out of the game: It was a five-run game, but Don Kelly’s running catch in left field to chase down Andrelton Simmons’ drive might have been a game-saver. If that ball bounces off the left-field wall for an RBI double, the tying run is on deck with the top of the Braves order up. And barring a double play, Justin Upton would have had a chance to face closer Jose Valverde.

Strategy: We’ve all seen Valverde in past ninth innings without a save situation. The Braves needed to get one more runner on base to create a save situation for him. Leyland wasn’t waiting for that.

“In the ninth inning, you do what you did because if you’re bringing your closer in, you’re in trouble,” Leyland said. “I mean, we’re in trouble, first and second, nobody out. People might think, ‘Ah, you’ve got a five-run lead.’ Well, this team hits the ball over the fence. All of a sudden, one more single and, boom, one home run and it’s a one-run lead. And all of a sudden, a walk and another home run and you’re behind. I didn’t want to do what I did tonight. I was hoping Alburquerque could get through it, but he couldn’t do it. But he did a great job the inning before.”

Line of the weekend: Infante went 6-for-12 with two doubles, two home runs, four RBIs and five runs scored for the series against one of his former teams.

Stat of the game: 8 — Batters Doug Fister has hit this season, topping his season total from last year.

Print it: “That’s an awful powerful team. We knew coming in that they let it fly. They’re really aggressive. It’s the most aggressive team I’ve seen. And sometimes that bites you, but for the most part, they’re going to score runs because they’re going to hit two- and three-run homers.” — Leyland on the Braves offense

Sunday night’s lineup: Tigers vs. Braves

It’s the typical right-handed heavy lineup for Detroit against Braves lefty Mike Minor. Jhonny Peralta stays in the sixth spot. The only Tigers who have faced Minor are National League veterans Prince Fielder, who’s 3-for-3 against him, and Omar Infante, 4-for-12 with two strikeouts. Nobody in the Braves lineup, for that matter, has faced Doug Fister. B.J. Upton has faced Fister, but he’s getting the night off in the midst of a 4-for-32, 14-strikeout slump. Dan Uggla moves to DH, with Tyler Pastornicky at second.

TIGERS

  1. Austin Jackson, CF
  2. Torii Hunter, RF
  3. Miguel Cabrera, 3B
  4. Prince Fielder, 1B
  5. Victor Martinez, DH
  6. Jhonny Peralta, SS
  7. Matt Tuiasosopo, LF
  8. Brayan Pena, C
  9. Omar Infante, 2B

P: Doug Fister

BRAVES

  1. Jordan Schafer, CF
  2. Tyler Pastornicky, 2B
  3. Justin Upton, LF
  4. Freddie Freeman, 1B
  5. Chris Johnson, 3B
  6. Evan Gattis, C
  7. Dan Uggla, DH
  8. Reed Johnson, RF
  9. Andrelton Simmons, SS

P: Mike Minor

Game 22: Delving into Rick Porcello’s stats

Is it possible that Rick Porcello could get more ground balls than last year and still fare worse?

In a small sample size, yes, it is.

Including Saturday’s win over the Braves, Porcello has a 1.94 groundout-to-flyout ratio, according to statistics on MLB.com. Other sites might have different numbers. Whatever the total, what seems consistent is that this year’s ratio is higher so far than he has had in a season. It’s significantly higher than the 1.74 groundout/flyout ratio he posted last year, when errors led to 11 unearned runs.

He has not taken any unearned runs this year, but the .337 batting average he has allowed so far is also higher than any season in his career. Again, it’s a small sample size, so such factors as those ground balls that got through the middle of the infield at Angel Stadium would have an effect, as would the infield singles there, or the two bloop singles in the three-run third inning Saturday against the Braves. After all, we’re only talking 19 1/3 innings so far this season, even though he has made four starts and one relief appearance.

We’re also talking about two starts in cold enough weather that it could affect how well he could grip his breaking ball. He threw 17 of them against the Braves, according to MLB.com Gameday data through brooksbaseball.net, and he drew two swings and misses and four other strikes not put in play.

That said, the thought has always been — and it was again on Saturday — that if he can keep the ball on the ground, things will work out. It took a difficult inning, and two third-inning walks didn’t help his cause, but against a Braves lineup that has punished opponents for leaving pitchers up, Porcello did more than survive.

Nine of his 19 outs came on ground balls, and his five strikeouts dwarfed his season total of three that he carried into this game. His ability to change speeds effectively left some Atlanta hitters fooled.

“I think at some point we got a little aggressive on him and didn’t get our pitches to hit,” Justin Upton said afterwards. “Sometimes that happens. We feel like we’re about to break through and put some runs on the board. Sometimes, you get aggressive. It didn’t work out in our favor.”

Against an aggressive lineup, ironically, Porcello was at his most effective. And he did it through the ground ball. If he keeps with the game plan, keeps pounding the lower part of the strike zone while changing speeds and eye level every once a while, he has to believe it’ll work out. He has to believe the defense will make plays behind him. Jhonny Peralta made an outstanding throw in the hole at shortstop to get an out.

The one miscue Saturday, though it wasn’t an error, was the missed chance at a double play in the third. That cost two runs, the one that scored on the play and the next one that scored on Freddie Freeman’s bloop single because the inning continued.

Add those two runs to the add-on runs that chased Porcello from the first inning last Saturday after early ground balls got through, though four of them scored on his own mistake pitch to Mike Trout for a grand slam, and Porcello has some damage that, while still earned, was also arguably avoidable.

That obviously can’t continue, and one would think it would not. The way Infante has stood out defensively, the way the rest of the infield has otherwise held its own, there’s reason to believe this infield is capable of making plays behind Porcello. Time will tell, and Porcello is likely to keep getting time in the rotation.

If he keeps up anywhere close to that ground ball ratio, there’s a good chance that .337 average will keep dropping. If it doesn’t, he’ll have a beef with somebody if they come for his rotation spot.

Play of the game: Omar Infante’s two-run home run was vitally important, not just because it put the Tigers back in front before the Braves could get to their bullpen, but because it showed the bottom of the Tigers order can make an opposing pitcher pay for a mistake pitch. It was two-strike fastball rising up and over the plate, and Infante lined it. It was not a cheapie.

Out of the game: I just spent almost 500 words talking about the importance of ground-ball outs, but the first-pitch out Porcello induced from Chris Johnson immediately after Freddie Freeman’s RBI single kept the inning from getting away like last Saturday’s first inning. More impressive, it was an out produced off a first-pitch curveball.

Strategy: With Andy Dirks feeling better but still iffy with his sore right knee, enough that Jim Leyland wanted to be cautious about it, Leyland went to the hot hitter and played Matt Tuiasosopo against a right-hander over Don Kelly. Tuiasosopo went 1-for-3 before giving way to Kelly as a defensive replacement. Kelly added a double and an insurance run in the eighth that widened the lead about Justin Upton’s homer drew Atlanta within one.

Line of the game: Porcello induced nine ground-ball outs, five strikeouts and just three fly outs during his 6 1/3 innings.

Stat of the game: 2 — Splitters thrown by Jose Valverde during his inning of relief for his second save of the week. The first splitter hit close to where Denard Robinson’s ceremonial first pitch bounced in the dirt earlier this month. The next was a nasty pitch that Evan Gattis barely fouled off. Valverde went with all fastballs, sinkers and cutters from there and managed to strike out B.J. Upton and Juan Francisco to end the game.

Print it: “He’s the silverware.” — Torii Hunter on Infante, sticking to his analogy about setting the table for the guys in the middle of the order to eat. Leadoff man Austin Jackson is the table-setter. Hunter is the server. Cabrera, Fielder and Martinez eat. Once the lineup comes back around, ninth hitter Infante is the silverware.

Saturday: Tigers vs. Braves

Prince Fielder played three games at designated hitter last season. He’s getting a game there today as Jim Leyland tries to watch his workload. It’s as close as Fielder gets to a day off. Victor Martinez, meanwhile, makes his first start at first base since July 31, 2011, the day the Tigers beat up on Jered Weaver at Comerica Park.

Meanwhile, Matt Tuiasosopo’s game Friday night and Andy Dirks’ knee issues earn Tuiasosopo the start against a right-hander. Lefty Mike Minor’s start Sunday means Tuiasosopo will start the entire series.

TIGERS

  1. Austin Jackson, CF
  2. Torii Hunter, RF
  3. Miguel Cabrera, 3B (2-for-3 against Kris Medlen)
  4. Prince Fielder, 1B
  5. Victor Martinez, DH
  6. Jhonny Peralta, SS
  7. Matt Tuiasosopo, LF
  8. Alex Avila, C (1-for-3, K against Medlen)
  9. Omar Infante, 2B

P: Rick Porcello

BRAVES

  1. Andrelton Simmons, SS
  2. Dan Uggla, 2B
  3. Justin Upton, LF (1-for-3, K off Porcello)
  4. Freddie Freeman, 1B
  5. Chris Johnson, 3B
  6. Evan Gattis, C
  7. B.J. Upton, CF (0-for-4, walk off Porcello)
  8. Juan Francisco, DH
  9. Jordan Schafer, RF

P: Kris Medlen

Game 21: Breaking down Sanchez’s performance

Yes, the Braves have a lot of high-strikeout hitters. And yes, I realize they were hacking with a 10-run deficit after four innings.

Anibal Sanchez’s ability to pile up 17 strikeouts against them remains a feat.

Usually when a pitcher puts up that many strikeouts in a game, somebody makes solid contact and produces some damage. Not only did Sanchez shut out the Braves, he kept the Major League leaders in home runs from anything close to clearing the fences. He gave up two gappers to the fence and a ground ball down the line, all of them doubles, and they accounted for the only runners in scoring position Sanchez faced all evening. The only one to advance to third did so on a passed ball.

In addition to the franchise-record 17 strikeouts, Sanchez induced seven groundouts. The only out in the air was the first out of the game, Andrelton Simmons’ popout to first baseman Prince Fielder. No outfielder recorded a putout. The only time they touched the ball were on the five base hits.

Sanchez threw 84 of his 121 pitches for strikes, and 27 of them were swings and misses according to MLB.com’s Gameday data on brooksbaseball.net. He recorded swings and misses with six different types of pitches, including 10 swings and misses off of his changeup.

He recorded first-pitch strikes to 19 out of 29 batters, which is impressive. More impressive were the 0-2 counts, 11 of them. Eight of them ended in strikeouts, along with a groundout and a double play. The only Brave to escape an 0-2 count was B.J. Upton, who struck out 169 times last year. He went from an 0-2 count to a two-out walk that extended the second inning for Juan Francisco, who promptly struck out on three pitches.

While the Braves lineup has changed substantially from even last year, Sanchez was at his toughest against the hitters who should know him best, the hitters who were around from the Braves teams that roughed up Sanchez regularly. Dan Uggla and Freddie Freeman came up to bat seven times against him and came back with seven strikeouts. Uggla struck out four times on four different pitches. Freeman struck out three times on three different pitches. Francisco, who homered three times against the Tigers in Spring Training, swung and missed at three different types of pitches for strikeouts.

As the strike zone plot from brooksbaseball.net shows, the Braves certainly chased pitches low and out of the strike zone, which Sanchez exploited masterfully. However, he wasn’t getting much off the corner.

sanchezplot042613

He had a 94 mph fastball that resembled his postseason work, and it set up his changeup wonderfully. Add what looked like two different breaking pitches, and Sanchez had nasty stuff. The Braves, in turn, looked nasty chasing it.

Friday’s lineups: Tigers vs. Braves

Ballpark 001This might not be what anybody wants to hear, the way the Tigers are hitting, but they have a lot of bad numbers against Paul Maholm. On the flip side, there are a few Braves with really good numbers against Anibal Sanchez, which explains why he struggled against them so much as a Marlin.

TIGERS

  1. Austin Jackson, CF (0-for-9, 3 K’s off Maholm)
  2. Torii Hunter, RF (0-for-2, walk, K off Maholm)
  3. Miguel Cabrera, 3B (4-for-13, walk, 3 K’s off Maholm)
  4. Prince Fielder, 1B (7-for-51, 2 walks, 15 K’s off Maholm)
  5. Victor Martinez, DH (1-for-3, 3 walks off Maholm)
  6. Matt Tuiasosopo, LF
  7. Jhonny Peralta, SS (4-for-9, HR, walk, K off Maholm)
  8. Brayan Pena, C
  9. Omar Infante, 2B (1-for-12, walk, 2 K’s off Maholm)

P: Anibal Sanchez

BRAVES

  1. Andrelton Simmons, SS (2-for-3 off Sanchez)
  2. Dan Uggla, 2B (4-for-10, 2 HR, 3 K’s off Sanchez)
  3. Justin Upton, LF (4-for-13, HR, 6 K’s off Sanchez)
  4. Freddie Freeman, 1B (3-for-8, K off Sanchez)
  5. Chris Johnson, 3B (3-for-9, 3 K’s off Sanchez)
  6. Evan Gattis, C
  7. B.J. Upton, CF (3-for-10, K off Sanchez)
  8. Juan Francisco, DH
  9. Reed Johnson, RF (1-for-3 off Sanchez)

P: Paul Maholm

Game 20: Two ways to attack a Moose

Jim Leyland took a chance on Wednesday when he brought in right-handed setup man Joaquin Benoit to face Mike Moustakas with the tying run on base, opting against left-hander Phil Coke. It went against the lefty-lefty matchup Leyland usually prefers, but the combination of Moustakas’ success against Coke (3-for-7 lifetime) and Benoit’s ability to retire left-handers (including Moustakas, who’s 1-for-7 against him) convinced him to do it.

The other problem Leyland cited was that the matchups became difficult if Coke couldn’t retire him, with right-handed hitter Jeff Francoeur following him. He would need different pitchers to get out of the inning. On Thursday, that difficulty became evident following a different decision and a walk that changed the complexion of the 10th and final inning.

This time, with Lorenzo Cain on second and one out, Leyland kept Phil Coke in the game to face Moustakas. It was a slightly different situation Thursday in that the go-ahead run was on base with less than two outs, and it was a speedster in Cain. Considering the Angels just stole three bases in as many tries off Benoit and Brayan Pena in the 10th inning on Sunday, running on Benoit and Alex Avila and producing a sacrifice fly, as they did off Bruce Rondon in the eighth inning to tie the game, could’ve been a bigger threat than hitting off Benoit.

Instead, Cain came around on Coke’s struggles. Five pitches later, Moustakas was on first with a walk. A first-pitch ball in the dirt to Francoeur for a wild pitch moved both runners up, and made Leyland’s decision simple to walk him and load the bases, trying to set up a force play at the plate or a double play to end the inning.

It wasn’t necessarily that Moustakas had beaten Coke. He didn’t get a chance. As Leyland put it afterwards, Coke lost the strike zone. He didn’t find it in the favorable matchup that followed, a bases-loaded showdown with left-handed hitting backup catcher George Kottaras that ended in a walk, driving in the go-ahead run.

Up came Alex Gordon, whose grand slam off Darin Downs’ 2-0 pitch put it away.

“We lost command of the strike one there late in the game,” Leyland said. “We had some left-handed hitters there and the conditions were a little rough and rain. Not making excuses, obviously, but we just didn’t throw the ball over the plate, and it killed us.”

Play of the game: Though the game turned on Detroit’s bullpen, the Tigers had a chance to break it open in the fifth after Torii Hunter had singled in Omar Infante to make it a 3-2 game. Cabrera had runners on first and second with one out and hit a sharp liner. Moustakas snared it, leaving Austin Jackson in no-man’s land between second and third for an easy inning-ending double play. Detroit didn’t get another hit the rest of the afternoon.

Line of the day: Coke was charged with four runs on one hit over 1 1/3 innings thanks to four walks, two of which were intentional.

Stats of the day: 37 — Walks allowed by Tigers relievers in 66 2/3 innings this season. That leads all Major League bullpens, as do the 80 strikeouts from Tigers relievers this season. All of that comes over 66 2/3 innings of relief, 13th among Major League clubs.

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