MLB: Kansas City Royals at Detroit Tigers

MLB Series of the Weekend: Tigers, Indians Both Battling for AL Central Title

Just one month ago, the Detroit Tigers were on cruise control and had a firm grip on the AL Central—possessing a 7-game lead on their nearest competitor.

But after losing 20 of their last 30 contests, they have sunk so far as to now being a half-game back in the division race. The most recent setbacks came at the hands of the team that has now replaced them at the top of the standings—dropping three of four at home to Kansas City.

The Cleveland Indians’ depression began at season’s start and lasted through late May—falling as much as 10.5 games back. Then came a three-game home sweep of the Tigers that included two walk-offs and likely was the spark that make Terry Francona’s club perform more like the playoff team they were in 2013.

And speaking of walk-offs, they had another one (a grand slam, no less) on Thursday courtesy of Nick Swisher.

Any discussion about the Tigers offense starts with (and revolves around) Miguel Cabrera. With 88 home runs and 276 RBI over the course of the 2012 and 2013 seasons, there’s good reason for him to be the center of attention.

Although his numbers in 2014 are understandably off the insane pace of the past two years, he’s still the most feared hitter in the game.

But Detroit’s lineup is not a one-man band. Victor Martinez is certainly in rhythm, with a team-high 17 home runs and a .328 average that is third in the AL.

The newly-acquired Ian Kinsler (formerly of the Texas Rangers) is still trying to prove his worth in the trade this past offseason for Prince Fielder. Kinsler has enjoyed his new home so far—with 24 of his 32 RBI coming at Comerica Park.

As a team, the Tigers lead the league in batting average with a mark of .274. That’s nearly 20 points higher than the Indians. However, Cleveland has produced 14 more runs.

Most of those have been driven in off the bat of Michael Brantley, who is having his best season yet. Ranking fourth in the batting race at .323 and fourth in runs scored, the outfielder is on his way to an All-Star selection. This makes his latest injury a cause for concern. A concussion has put him out for three days, but all signs point to him returning to the lineup by Saturday.

With Brantley leading the team in nearly every major offensive category, it puts great pressure on the rest of the lineup—especially since none of them have more than nine home runs and nobody bats better than .263.

You can point to several reasons why the Indians struggled out of the gate. One area that may have presented the greatest problems was the ineptitude on the field. As of Thursday, the Tribe have committed an AL-worst 64 errors.

Leading the charge for Cleveland on this matter is Asdrubal Cabrera—whose 13 errors are the second-most among big league shortstops. Omar Vizquel he is not.

Catcher Yan Gomes doesn’t elicit much trust behind the plate with nine more errors and having thrown out just 29 percent of opponents trying to steal.

Detroit can’t brag too much, as its defense has been spotty at best. As of late may, the Tigers had converted 71 percent of induced groundballs into outs—the worst rate in baseball.

So while the defense in the outfield has been solid, the group that mans the infield could be a real undoing in important situations—like September or October. What’s more, the Tigers had fielding standout Jose Iglesias pinned as the shortstop at spring training—until an injury put him out for the season.

Starting Pitching:
Justin Verlander’s poor performance against Kansas City was the latest in a continuous struggle to return to form.

His final line read: 6.0 IP, 7 ER, 2 K’s. With each passing start similar to Monday, it becomes clearer that the old Verlander (6-7 record in 2014) is less likely to appear again. He has the opportunity to start proving his critics wrong when he takes the mound against a relatively unknown in Trevor Bauer. The 23-year-old from North Hollywood, CA requires plenty of help from the relief staff, as Bauer has yet to go beyond the sixth in any start this year.

Max Scherzer endured an outing this week that was even rougher than teammate Verlander. The defending Cy Young Award winner was pummeled to the tune of 10 Royals runs allowed in four innings of work. His chance for immediate redemption is scheduled for Sunday against Josh Tomlin, another unheralded Cleveland hurler.

The Tribe will feature the ace of their staff, Corey Kluber, on Friday evening. He leads the club with a 3.35 ERA, 108 strikeouts and six victories, although he has yet to win this month.

Relief Pitching:
Prior to the starting pitching be a main point of concern for Detroit, it was the bullpen that left Brad Ausmus confused.

The main headaches came from closer Joe Nathan. Following an awful stretch less than three weeks back that saw him surrender 10 runs in 2.1 innings over the course of five games, the first-year Tiger had a seismic ERA of 7.02. It’s been trimmed down since, but his status as closer is tenuous at best.

With Nathan’s faltering, it has given other relievers, namely Joba Chamberlin, a chance in ninth-inning scenarios. The former Yankee has converted on two of his four save opportunities and has 34 strikeouts in 30.1 innings of work. He, Ian Krol and Al Alburquerque have combined for 31 holds in 2014.

The closer role in Cleveland has varied over the course of this season. Five different Indians have notched saves. John Axford still leads the club with nine, but his inability to keep opponents’ offenses down forced Terry Francona to make a change.

So far, it’s proven to be a successful move—with Cody Allen recording seven saves in eight chances. Axford has also benefited from the switch. Since May 13, he has allowed just two earned runs in his 16 innings.

Other Match-ups to Watch

Braves vs. Nationals:
Over the past two seasons, the Braves have had the Nationals number. But, for now, the only number Atlanta can think about is 1.5. That was the separation in games heading into Thursday’s series opener—with Washington holding the upper hand. It was reduced with the Braves’ 3-0 victory at Nationals Park. Friday’s starting pitcher, Stephen Strasburg, hopes to reverse that trend along with an improved (and healthier) offense. The Braves counter with Julio Teheran on Saturday—as they try to bounce back from a home sweep by Philadelphia.

Orioles vs. Yankees:
The Braves and Nationals may be battling for supremacy in the NL East. The O’s and Yanks, meanwhile, are jointly reeling in the Blue Jays. New York took care of Toronto thanks to a mixture of superb pitching from Masahiro Tanaka (6.0 IP, 5 hits, 1 ER, 10 K’s) and a breakout hitting performance from catcher Brian McCann (home run, triple, 5 RBI on Wednesday) to hand Mark Buehrle a rare defeat. Tanaka takes the hill for Sunday’s finale—vying for win No. 12. Chris Davis looks to add to his 12 home runs—well behind his teammate, Nelson Cruz, who has a league-best 22. Davis hit a grand slam in Tampa on Tuesday night in helping the O’s take a series from the slumping Rays.

Mariners vs. Royals:
The swift transformation of the Royals this season reached its peak with a 10-game winning streak that put Kansas City in unfamiliar territory: first place. K.C. still has the worst home run total in the majors, but looks are most definitely deceiving after watching the offense destroy Tiger pitching during a two-day stretch in which they plated 22 runs. Seattle is too inconsistent to be considered a serious playoff contender, even though they have a team ERA that is ahead of all AL teams except Oakland. A series that has three quality mound duals opens with Hisashi Iwakuma taking on James Shields.

Brian Wright

About Brian Wright

With over a decade's worth of sports journalism experience, MLB Lead Writer Brian Wright has been featured on Bleacher Report, SB Nation, as well as the Washington Examiner. He is currently the host of his own sports history podcast, 'Profiles in Sports'. While attending Virginia Tech, Brian covered Frank Beamer's Hokie football teams (among other sports) for the school's daily campus newspaper. Nothing would please him more than a World Series title for his beloved New York Mets.