Manager Ron Gardenhire knows the Detroit Tigers’ four-game series with the Cleveland Indians will come down to keeping up with the opposition’s starting rotation.
From Thursday through Sunday at Comerica Park, the Indians will send out right-handers Shane Bieber (1.53 ERA), Zach Plesac (2.20), Triston McKenzie (3.91) and Carlos Carrasco (3.27). The Indians’ rotation has put up an MLB-leading 3.12 ERA, 325 strikeouts and 4.45 strikeout-to-walk ratio.
“Facing good pitchers, this is an experience for them, a good experience,” Gardenhire said Thursday. “Being in a race like this is a good experience for them. (Bieber) has got to throw the ball just like everybody else, but he’s got quality stuff. I think the most important part is our pitchers giving us a chance to hang in there.”
The Tigers (21-27) enter Thursday’s game 4½ games behind the Indians (26-23) for the AL’s eighth and final playoff spot. It’s not as easy as just beating the Indians to climb back into contention, though; the Baltimore Orioles and Seattle Mariners are in the race, too, at four games behind the Indians, and half a game ahead of the Tigers. (The Mariners “hosted” the Giants in a matinee Thursday in San Francisco, due to air quality concerns in Seattle, while the Orioles took on the Tampa Bay Rays in a doubleheader.)
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After being swept by the Chicago White Sox over the weekend, the Tigers seemed out of the hunt, but they returned to Comerica Park and split a two-game slate with the Kansas City Royals. Meanwhile, the Indians hit Detroit on an eight-game skid. That losing streak has kept the door open for the Tigers, who have a 1.3% chance of making the playoffs in the projection by FanGraphs.com.
“We’re going to have to be our best,” Gardenhire said. “We’re going to have to really put it together. These can be fun games for us if we win a couple of them right away. Never know what might happen.”
But there won’t be a chance if right-handers Michael Fulmer and Spencer Turnbull get rocked again. Nor if rookie Casey Mize and inconsistent lefty Matthew Boyd can’t produce starts similar to their last outings.
Mize starts Thursday, followed by Fulmer, Turnbull and Boyd.
On the other side: Bieber pitches Thursday, followed by Plesac, McKenzie and Carrasco.
If the Tigers’ rotation can match those four, it might be enough for the offense to steal a few close games, which would make the final six scheduled games — as well as an currently unscheduled doubleheader with the St. Louis Cardinals — much more interesting.
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Mize took a no-hitter into the sixth inning of his last outing, and Boyd tossed 5⅔ scoreless. But Fulmer and Turnbull weren’t as fortunate. Each gave up five runs in their last start against the AL Central-leading White Sox, on Saturday and Sunday, respectively.
The encouraging angle is this: Fulmer said he had his best stuff since before his knee and elbow surgeries; Turnbull said he hadn’t felt that good in a long time.
“I felt like I made good pitches,” Turnbull said Sunday. “I felt like my stuff was really sharp compared to how it’s been all year. I was pleased with that. For the most part, I felt like I executed. I threw a lot of strikes, had one walk. I had swing-and-miss stuff today, which I haven’t had a ton of this year. That was nice to see. Just had a lot of hits fall in.”
Fulmer believes he can make it through the fourth or fifth inning, even as Gardenhire limits his pitch count because of Tommy John surgery in March 2019. And Turnbull has looked like an ace at times, but only when he keeps his command in check.
“I gotta go out and throw those zeros up,” Fulmer said Saturday. “Preferably in less than 20-something pitches in an inning, not try to get to full count to every batter. I thought we were on pace for that tonight. I felt really good pre-game. I felt good in that first inning.”
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Still, the Tigers have yet to get three standout performances in a row from their current rotation this season, much less four— until they do, that 1.3% chance is little more than a pipedream.
“This is a big series,” Gardenhire said. “This is the one team that’s right ahead of us. We’re facing a team that’s struggling, but they still got great pitching. Got to figure out ways to score runs. And we’re going to need our staff to step up.”
Reyes must play through slump
Center fielder Victor Reyes has one hit in his last 19 at-bats, and two in his last 29.
But with just 10 games remaining, Gardenhire isn’t giving him a day off. Reyes, who was hitting .312 before the 2-for-29 stretch, is going to have to snap out of his slump on the fly. From Aug. 21 through Sept. 6, the 25-year-old slashed .369/.388/.615 with five doubles, one triple, three homers and seven RBIs.
“He’s probably a little worn down right now, and there’s really not a whole heck of a lot I can do about it,” Gardenhire said. “He’s got to play. He’s just going to have to suck it up and get through it. He’s young enough that he should be able to do that.”
Gardenhire’s only other option in center is Derek Hill, who has seven career MLB at-bats.
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Evan Petzold is a sports reporting intern at the Detroit Free Press. Contact him at email@example.com or follow him on Twitter @EvanPetzold. The Free Press has started a new digital subscription model. Here’s how you can gain access to our most exclusive Detroit Tigers content.