Series matchup: Tigers vs. Phillies

The Tigers came into the season viewed as a potential contending team, got out to a slow start over the first month, and spent the past week rebuilding momentum. The Phillies came into the season in full rebuild mode, got out to a fast start to challenge the Nationals and Mets atop the NL East, then stumbled a bit over the weekend.

It makes for an interesting three-game series at Comerica Park, and an underrated test for both teams. The Phillies will send some of their best young starters, beginning with upstart Vince Velasquez, against a Tigers offense that is finally starting to put up crooked numbers. Detroit gets the toughest opponent of its nine-game homestand, and a Phillies pitching staff that is averaging just about a strikeout per inning.

“We’re going to see some excellent starting pitching from them,” Tigers manager Brad Ausmus said. “So we have to go out there and do what we did [Sunday], try to make them get in the zone, get the ball up and hit it.”

The good news for the Tigers is that none of the Phillies’ starters for the series are left-handed. Sure, Detroit eventually put a few runs on ex-teammate Drew Smyly’s line Saturday, but overall, the struggles remain for a heavily right-handed hitting lineup. That said, all three Phillies probable starters have been really good. Even Jeremy Hellickson, 4-2 with a 3.99 ERA this season, is coming off back-to-back strong starts against the Reds and Marlins.

The flip side is that the Phillies offense has been anemic — next-to-last in the National League in runs and homers, third-to-last among NL teams in OPS. As well as the Phillies have pitched — just three NL teams have allowed fewer runs than the 173 allowed by Philadelphia this season — they’ve scored just 142. No other Major League team with a winning record has anywhere near that negative of a run differential. Center fielder Odubel Herrera is the only regular with an OPS over .750, putting up an .887 mark. If you need a historical reference close to home, think 2009 Tigers.

Those offensive struggles make it interesting, because the bookend starters the Tigers send out this series — Mike Pelfrey tonight, Anibal Sanchez Wednesday afternoon — could use a strong outing.

Scene-setter: Veteran team with high expectations looks for more momentum to get back into contention facing a once-perennial contender that finally went into rebuilding mode last year and has so far beaten low expectations.

Season series: This is the only series between the two teams this season. They haven’t met since 2013, when the Tigers swept a three-game series at Comerica Park. Detroit leads the all-time series, 9-6.

Probable starters:

  • Monday: Mike Pelfrey (0-4, 5.49) vs. Vince Velasquez (5-1, 2.42)
  • Tuesday: Justin Verlander (3-4, 4.58) vs. Jeremy Hellickson (4-2, 3.99)
  • Wednesday: Anibal Sanchez (3-5, 6.23) vs. Aaron Hola (3-3, 2.85)

Key matchups: The last time the Tigers saw Phillies third baseman Maikel Franco, he was tearing up the Grapefruit League in Spring Training, slugging nine home runs in 68 at-bats to go with a .294 average and 1.054 OPS. He has seven homers in 162 at-bats so far this season, but he’s hitting just .247. He’s homerless in his last 11 games, batting 9-for-41 with three doubles in that stretch.

What about Ryan Howard, you ask? He’s 2-for-31 over his last 12 games, but he’s 16-for-45 (.356) with three homers career off Mike Pelfrey.

The Phillies saw a lot of Cameron Maybin last year, though maybe not the way he’s hitting now. Maybin batted 15-for-55 with three extra-base hits against Philadelphia last season. He’s batting 12-for-20 with five runs scored and five RBIs in his second Tigers tenure. Ausmus said over the weekend he’s not considering moving Maybin up in the order anytime soon, allowing him to get more at-bats lower down and keep similarly red-hot J.D. Martinez (12-for-30 with four HR his last seven games) in the second spot in the order.

Just so you know: The Tigers haven’t won three consecutive series since the start of last season. Two wins this series would do that.

Familiar faces: Three coaches on Ausmus’ staff spent significant time in Philadelphia. Rich Dubee served as pitching coach in Philly for nine seasons, earning regard for his work with Roy Halladay, Cliff Lee and Cole Hamels. Bullpen coach Mick Billmeyer served on the Phillies staff from 2004 to 2013 as catching and bullpen coach under four different managers. Wally Joyner spent the 2013 season as Phillies assistant hitting coach before being hired in Detroit.

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According to inside edge scout, Tigers are the 6th best defensive team. Phillies, 3rd. “They do the little thing right”

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