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 If you need a historical reference close to home, think 2009 Tigers.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.
- 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.
After debating a day off for Justin Upton for the better part of a week, Brad Ausmus pulled the switch Sunday. Steven Moya gets the start in left against Chris Archer, whose struggles this season have actually come more from right-handed batters (30-for-114, 8 HR) than left-handed hitters (20-for-80, 1 HR). Andrew Romine gets his first start since May 10 in Washington, giving Jose Iglesias the day game off after a night game.
The Rays start Desmond Jennings in center today in their first game without Kevin Kiermaier (broken hand), but they move Steve Pearce back to a more natural position at first base. Tim Beckham gets the start at second, while Logan Morrison is the DH, with Corey Dickerson on the bench.
Today is the second meeting between Jordan Zimmermann and Steven Souza Jr., whose diving catch finished off Zimmermann’s no-hitter in Washington on the final day of the 2014 regular season. Souza singled and doubled off of him last June at Nationals Park.
TIGERS (career numbers off Archer)
- Ian Kinsler, 2B (1-for-15, double, walk, 6 K’s)
- J.D. Martinez, RF (3-for-13, HR, 4 K’s)
- Miguel Cabrera, 1B (2-for-8, 2 walks, K)
- Victor Martinez, DH (1-for-9, 3 K’s)
- Nick Castellanos, 3B (2-for-10, 4 K’s)
- Steven Moya, LF
- Cameron Maybin, CF
- Jarrod Saltalamacchia, C (0-for-7, walk, 4 K’s)
- Andrew Romine, SS (3-for-6, 2 walks, K)
P: Jordan Zimmermann
RAYS (career numbers vs. Zimmermann)
- Brandon Guyer, LF (0-for-1)
- Brad Miller, SS
- Evan Longoria, 3B (1-for-5, 2 K’s)
- Steve Pearce, 1B (4-for-9, 2 doubles, 2 HR, walk, K)
- Steven Souza Jr., RF (2-for-3, HR)
- Logan Morrison, DH (3-for-18, double, 2 HR, walk, 8 K’s)
- Desmond Jennings, CF
- Tim Beckham, 2B
- Curt Casali, C (2-for-2, HR, walk)
P: Chris Archer
Drew Smyly isn’t the only ex-Tiger facing the Detroiters today. Curt Casali, the former Tigers catching prospect traded to Tampa Bay in the Kyle Lobstein trade a few years ago, makes his first-ever appearance at Comerica Park. It’s not his first appearance against the Tigers, of course. He had back-to-back two-homer games against them at Tropicana Field last July.
TIGERS (career numbers vs. Drew Smyly)
- Ian Kinsler, 2B (4-for-10, HR, walk, K)
- J.D. Martinez, RF (0-for-3, 2 K’s)
- Miguel Cabrera, 1B (0-for-3)
- Victor Martinez, DH
- Nick Castellanos, 3B (1-for-3, double, K)
- Justin Upton, LF
- Cameron Maybin, CF
- James McCann, C (2-for-2, HR)
- Jose Iglesias, SS (0-for-3, K)
P: Michael Fulmer
- Brandon Guyer, LF
- Brad Miller, SS
- Evan Longoria, 3B
- Steve Pearce, 2B
- Corey Dickerson, DH
- Steven Souza, RF
- Logan Morrison, 1B
- Kevin Kiermaier, CF
- Curt Casali, C
P: Drew Smyly
Current Tigers have just six career plate appearances against Matt Andriese, and Jordan Zimmermann has two of them. James McCann has a single off of him from one of his relief appearances last September at Comerica Park. Regardless, no surprises in the lineup today. That means Steven Moya sits for a third time in four games
fourth consecutive game. With Tyler Collins eligible to be recalled from Triple-A Toledo this weekend, it wouldn’t be a surprise if the Tigers option Moya back to the Mud Hens to get regular at-bats.
TIGERS (career numbers off Andriese)
- Ian Kinsler, 2B
- J.D. Martinez, RF (0-for-0, walk)
- Miguel Cabrera, 1B
- Victor Martinez, DH
- Nick Castellanos, 3B (0-for-1)
- Justin Upton, LF
- Cameron Maybin, CF
- James McCann, C (1-for-1)
- Jose Iglesias, SS
P: Anibal Sanchez
RAYS (career numbers vs. Sanchez)
- Steven Souza Jr., RF (1-for-3, double, K)
- Brad Miller, SS (0-for-3, 3 walks, K)
- Evan Longoria, 3B (4-for-13, double, triple, 2 walks, 2 K’s)
- Steve Pearce, 2B (0-for-1)
- Corey Dickerson, DH (0-for-3, K)
- Desmond Jennings, LF (1-for-9, 2 walks, 2 K’s)
- Logan Morrison, 1B (0-for-4, 3 K’s)
- Kevin Kiermaier, CF (2-for-5, double, triple, K)
- Hank Conger, C
P: Matt Andriese
Justin Verlander reached the 2000-strikeout mark for his Major League career. Jarrod Saltalamacchia accounts for eight of those, not counting three others in postseason play.
“I definitely helped him with that,” Saltalamacchia said. “I’m expecting maybe a Casio watch.”
That was a little gag at Verlander, a noted watch collector.
Brad Ausmus isn’t nearly as far up the list, but he accounts for one of those strikeouts in two at-bats during Verlander’s rookie season a decade ago.
“He’s been one of the elite pitchers in baseball since he arrived on the scene in ’06, really,” Ausmus said. “I think since the end of last July, when a lot of people doubted him, I think he’s kind of shown that he’s got some left in the tank. It might not be 97-100 [mph] anymore, but he’s got years of experience. And he can still crank it up to 96-97 when he needs to. He’s got a little more moxie now.”
Leaders on the Verlander career strikeout list, according to baseball-reference:
- Alex Gordon, 29
- Asdrubal Cabrera, 25
- Nick Swisher, 25
- Shin-Soo Choo, 24
- Jhonny Peralta, 20
- Paul Konerko, 16
- Grady Sizemore, 16
- Justin Morneau, 15
- Mark Teahen, 15
- Jim Thome, 15
- Travis Hafner, 15
- Adam Dunn, 15
Hafner was Verlander’s first and second strikeouts, fanning in the first and second innings of his Major League debut in Cleveland on July 4, 2005. It took Hafner two years to get him back with a home run.
Verlander has more strikeouts against Cleveland (302) than any other team he has faced, and it’s not close. The next-highest opponent is Kansas City with 221, followed by the White Sox with 200. Even with 10 strikeouts Wednesday, the Twins are still last among division opponents with 197.
Joe Mauer accounts for 12 of Verlander’s 2003 strikeouts, including one Thursday with a runner on third and two outs in the seventh inning. He also accounts for a lot of respect.
“I’ve faced him pretty much my whole career and he’s really evolved into a pitcher,” Mauer said. “When he first started to come up, he was more of a thrower. He could get away with a lot of things. But he was pretty tough today.”
- Verlander has more four-pitch strikeouts (572) than any other duration. He has 508 five-pitch strikeouts, and just 329 three-pitch K’s.
- Verlander has recorded more strikeouts in the fourth inning (313) than any other frame. Next highest is the second inning with 310, followed by the opening inning with 306.
- Verlander has more strikeouts on the road (1035) than at home (968).
- Thirty-seven strikeouts have come with the bases loaded. He has 1209 with the bases empty.
- Wednesday was Verlander’s 31st outing with double-digit strikeouts.
The Tigers get to settle in Thursday for their first off-day in the middle of a homestand this year. It’s just their second off-day at home this season, and their first day off of any kind in 2 ½ weeks. It will be coming off a four-game winning streak.
If they had been off Monday, coming off a 2-5 road trip and 11 losses in their previous 13 games, they would’ve been hearing about it for close to 48 hours before they could take the field. The frustration would’ve had that much more time to percolate, the attention that much more time to hone in on Ausmus, fair or not.
As they filed out of the clubhouse for some badly needed rest, it was a much different feeling around the club than when they came in a couple days earlier.
“It’s nice to get a win,” Ian Kinsler said, “but we just have to remember where we’re at as a team and make sure we don’t lose the energy that we have. You don’t want it to affect the energy and what we have going, going into Friday. You want to make sure that everyone remembers what we’re doing, how you felt when you’re in here, and bring that on Friday.”
This was the stretch the Tigers needed to reach to catch a breath after a stretch against teams that wore them down, from Max Scherzer’s 20-strikeout game a week ago to a pesky Texas lineup to scoreless performances from Corey Kluber in Cleveland to Chris Tillman in Baltimore.
As much as the Tigers respect the Twins for the leap they made last season, they also match up well against them, having swept them in Minnesota at the end of April. They did it again the last few days, outscoring Minnesota by a 23-15 margin. The lack of timely hitting that dogged them in Baltimore, Washington and Cleveland wasn’t a factor, nor were the pitching issues that seemed to pop up in a different inning each time out.
“It was always one part of our game that was hurting us, or beating us, whether it was the bullpen one day, or starting pitching one day, or the offense one day,” manager Brad Ausmus said. “Now we’re getting those things to work together. We’re getting the runs. Our starters are going deep into games, and the bullpen is keeping the lead.”
Another three-game series against a team without a winning record awaits with the Rays coming to town. They’ll get a test against the surprisingly resurgent Phillies next week, then hit the road for a six-game West Coast trip to the sub-.500 Athletics and Angels.
Add in a makeup game against the last-place Yankees, and the Tigers won’t face another first-place team until the White Sox come to town the first weekend in June. They have two weeks to then to build up their record and their confidence.
“I haven’t really seen that we’ve really been down,” bench coach Gene Lamont said Tuesday, “but you keep thinking this thing’s gotta turn around. If it doesn’t, you just keep waiting and waiting. Hopefully it has.”
They sound like a team not lacking in confidence that they can turn it around, even though they remain two games under .500 for now.
“The easiest thing to forget is this is a 162-game season,” Justin Verlander said. “Even the best of teams go through stretches.”
Thursday is their chance to stretch out and relax. Come Friday, they’ll try to stretch out their winning streak.
Today might have been the day to rest Justin Upton in favor of Steven Moya, Brad Ausmus admitted, if not for Upton’s game Tuesday night — not just the ground-rule double to the depths of Comerica Park, but the earlier drive to center that Danny Santana ran down in the gap. So aside from the catching spot, the Tigers have the same lineup as the first two games of the series.
UPDATE: Moya ends up in the starting lineup anyway. Ausmus made a late decision to get Victor Martinez an extra day of rest. Moya enters lineup at DH, batting sixth. Nick Castellanos and Justin Upton move up in batting order.
TIGERS (career numbers off Ricky Nolasco)
- Ian Kinsler, 2B (7-for-20, 3 doubles, 2 K’s)
- J.D. Martinez, RF (5-for-18, walk, 3 K’s)
- Miguel Cabrera, 1B (4-for-14, double, 3 walks, 7 K’s)
- Nick Castellanos, 3B (3-for-11, double, 2 HR, 2 K’s)
- Justin Upton, LF (5-for-17, 2 walks, 5 K’s)
- Steven Moya, DH
- Cameron Maybin, CF (4-for-5)
- Jarrod Saltalamacchia, C (1-for-9, 3 K’s)
- Jose Iglesias, SS (4-for-5, double, walk)
P: Justin Verlander
TWINS (career numbers vs. Verlander)
- Joe Mauer, DH (24-for-68, 5 doubles, 3 HR, 12 walks, 11 K’s)
- Eduardo Nunez, SS (4-for-11, double, HR, 2 K’s)
- Miguel Sano, RF (1-for-2, walk, K)
- Byung Ho Park, 1B
- Trevor Plouffe, 3B (7-for-34, 3 doubles, 9 K’s)
- Brian Dozier, 2B (4-for-17, double, 3 walks, 5 K’s)
- Eddie Rosario, LF (1-for-3)
- Kurt Suzuki, C (11-for-36, 2 doubles, walk, 4 K’s)
- Danny Santana, CF (3-for-9, triple)
P: Ricky Nolasco
Phil Hughes is giving up a .354 (17-for-48) average to left-handed batters this season, compared to .270 (27-for-100) against righties. But six of his seven homers have come off right-handed bats, and his career averages point toward more damage from right-handed hitters. That was part of the reason for Justin Upton and J.D. Martinez getting the start against him. Steven Moya sits for a second consecutive night. Other than James McCann catching, the batting order stays the same from last night.
TIGERS (career numbers off Hughes)
- Ian Kinsler, 2B (8-for-36, 3 doubles, triple, 3 walks, 3 K’s)
- J.D. Martinez, RF (3-for-12, double, HR, walk, 5 K’s)
- Miguel Cabrera, 1B (18-for-44, 5 doubles, 6 HR, 2 walks, 5 K’s)
- Victor Martinez, DH (12-for-40, 2 doubles, HR, 5 K’s)
- Nick Castellanos, 3B (5-for-14, 2 doubles, walk, 5 K’s)
- Justin Upton, LF (2-for-3)
- Cameron Maybin, CF (2-for-5, K)
- James McCann, C (4-for-5, 2 doubles)
- Jose Iglesias, SS (2-for-8, K)
P: Mike Pelfrey
TWINS (career numbers vs. Pelfrey)
- Joe Mauer, 1B (3-for-6, double, K)
- Jorge Polanco, SS
- Miguel Sano, RF (2-for-2, double, walk)
- Byung Ho Park, DH (1-for-2, walk, K)
- Trevor Plouffe, 3B
- Brian Dozier, 2B (0-for-2, walk)
- Eddie Rosario, LF (0-for-2)
- Juan Centeno, C
- Danny Santana, CF (1-for-3, K)
P: Phil Hughes
One more go-around for Justin Upton in center field and Anthony Gose in left. Mike Aviles gets the start at shortstop, giving Jose Iglesias a day off.
TIGERS (career numbers vs. Kevin Gausman)
- Ian Kinsler, 2B (3-for-9, double, 2 K’s)
- J.D. Martinez, RF (0-for-3, walk, 2 K’s)
- Miguel Cabrera, 1B (2-for-7, K)
- Victor Martinez, DH (1-for-9, double, 2 K’s)
- Nick Castellanos, 3B (1-for-4, HR, K)
- Justin Upton, CF
- Steven Moya, LF
- James McCann, C (1-for-3)
- Mike Aviles, SS (1-for-2, double)
P: Michael Fulmer
- Joey Rickard, RF
- Manny Machado, SS
- Adam Jones, CF
- Chris Davis, 1B
- Mark Trumbo, DH
- Jonathan Schoop, 2B
- Pedro Alvarez, 3B
- Nolan Reimold, LF
- Caleb Joseph, C
P: Kevin Gausman
The Tigers repeat the outfield setup of Justin Upton in center and Steven Moya in left against Orioles starter Chris Tillman, who has held right-handed hitters to an 11-for-61 (.180) clip compared to 19-for-76 (.250) against left-handed batters. The only change on Detroit’s side is behind the plate, where James McCann will catch Justin Verlander.
The Orioles put Matt Wieters back in at catcher despite his historic struggles against Justin Verlander.
TIGERS (career numbers against Tillman)
- Ian Kinsler, 2B (5-for-21, double, HR, 2 walks, 3 K’s)
- J.D. Martinez, RF (1-for-8, HR, 2 K’s)
- Miguel Cabrera, 1B (5-for-15, double, HR, 2 walks, 4 K’s)
- Victor Martinez, DH (5-for-14, double, HR, walk, 3 K’s)
- Nick Castellanos, 3B (1-for-8, K)
- Justin Upton, CF
- Steven Moya, LF
- James McCann, C (0-for-3, K)
- Jose Iglesias, SS (2-for-12, double, 2 K’s)
P: Justin Verlander
ORIOLES (career numbers vs. Verlander)
- Joey Rickard, LF
- Manny Machado, SS (3-for-14, double, 2 walks, 5 K’s)
- Adam Jones, CF (9-for-38, double, 2 HR, walk, 10 K’s)
- Chris Davis, 1B (6-for-25, 3 walks, 11 K’s)
- Mark Trumbo, RF (2-for-9, 3 K’s)
- Matt Wieters, C (3-for-24, double, triple, HR, 2 walks, 4 K’s)
- Pedro Alvarez, DH (2-for-12, double, 6 K’s)
- Jonathan Schoop, 2B (2-for-9, HR, double, 2 K’s)
- Ryan Flaherty, 3B (2-for-10, walk, K)
P: Chris Tillman