April 28th, 2013

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.

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