CHICAGO — The Detroit Tigers entered Friday with three games remaining in the 2021 season to prepare for one of their upcoming goals: Win the American League Central.
At the start of Friday’s series opener with the Chicago White Sox, the Tigers were 76-83 and third in the AL Central. Considering they finished last in the Central in three of the past four seasons, it’s an improvement, but it’s not entirely reflective of the work manager AJ Hinch has done in changing the culture and raising expectations.
That’s why the Tigers’ 29-44 record against their four division opponents is concerning. The franchise hasn’t won the AL Central since 2014, which concluded a stretch of four consecutive division titles under managers Jim Leyland and Brad Ausmus.
“Look, you play 162 games,” Hinch said Monday. “Every one counts the same. We focus a ton on our own division because we play them the most. Quite honestly, it’s the motivation leaving the season. We’ve not played well in the division. Each of the teams in this division has beat us in the season series. We’re going to need to do better if we expect to give ourselves the best chance to win the division.”
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The Tigers are two games behind second-place Cleveland in the standings. They’re also three games ahead of the fourth-place Kansas City Royals and five games above the last-place Minnesota Twins. The White Sox, meanwhile, clinched the division Sept. 24.
The Tigers’ records vs. AL Central teams this season:
• White Sox: 6-10.
• Cleveland: 7-12.
• Royals: 8-11.
• Twins: 8-11.
At 91-68, the White Sox certainly appear to have enough talent to win the World Series. They’ll start chasing a championship Thursday against the Houston Astros — with the site of Game 1 to be determined by this weekend’s games — while the Tigers will pack their bags and head home following Sunday’s season finale.
“I think matching up with certain teams is very important,” Hinch said. “I look at some of the left-handedness of both the pitchers on the opponent and some of their hitters. I don’t think we’ve controlled that as well. I haven’t looked it up statistically yet, but the feel is left-handed pitching, we’ve been good not great against some of the spin in the division. Certainly, some of these teams are built with incredible pitching staffs.”
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What’s even more puzzling is the Tigers’ success against winning teams and other AL opponents. Detroit is 18-14 and 18-16 against the AL East and AL West, respectively, and owns a 38-34 mark against teams with a .500 record or better. Not only that, but the Tigers are the only team in the AL Central with a winning record against winning teams.
“Year to year, it might fluctuate a little bit,” Hinch said. “But this should wake us up as to addressing some needs that we have to play better within the division since a lot of these teams in the division are going to return a large portion of their team.”
Rony Garcia: Nearly four months ago, the right-handed pitcher collapsed on the field during warmups and landed on the injured list with a left knee sprain. The injury held him out for the remainder of the 2021 season, after he appeared in two games. He posted a 2.45 ERA with two walks and two strikeouts over 3⅔ innings. The 23-year-old will play in the Dominican Winter League this offseason.
“He’s throwing bullpens in Lakeland and is very active,” Hinch said. “He’s getting himself ready for winter ball. I’m not sure when that starts, or if he will be on a winter ball roster to start the offseason, but the expectation is for him to pile up a few innings to make up for some lost time.”
Derek Hill: The Tigers are still waiting for an update on outfielder Derek Hill, who met with a specialist Thursday in the San Francisco area to evaluate his left knee sprain. He could need surgery. The team expects to know more soon.
Evan Petzold is a sports reporter at the Detroit Free Press. Contact him at email@example.com or follow him on Twitter @EvanPetzold. Read more on the Detroit Tigers and sign up for our Tigers newsletter.