Perhaps it would’ve been hasty to call this weekend’s Detroit Tigers-Atlanta Braves series a World Series preview.
But having interleague play every day on the schedule presented us with this matchup in late April, pitting two pennant contenders against each other. Regardless of how the series turned out, to react too strongly one way or another wouldn’t have been sensible.
Yet a sweep over the Braves, who came to Detroit with the best record in MLB at 15-6, is certainly notable. It’s even more of an eyebrow-raiser considering how dominant the Tigers looked, winning the three games by a combined score of 25-7. Would anyone have predicted that result?
Surprises aside, there were definitely some things to take from this three-game sweep. Here are five things we learned from the weekend.
1. The Tigers can destroy good pitching. Maybe this is a Captain Obvious statement. Detroit has one of the best lineups in MLB, led by Miguel Cabrera and Prince Fielder. Still, it was somewhat of a surprise to see the Tigers blow up three Atlanta pitchers that came into this series with impressive numbers.
Left-hander Paul Maholm had a 3-1 record and 1.03 ERA in his first four starts. He’d allowed three runs in 26.1 innings. Was Maholm pitching over his head? Yes, probably. His ERA was close to 4.00 in each of the past two seasons, with a career mark of 4.24. Nonetheless, the Tigers rocked him for eight runs and 10 hits in less than four innings.
Kris Medlen has gotten off to a slow start this season, but ended last year as one of the best pitchers in the National League. After the All-Star break, he went 9-0 with an 0.94 ERA in 19 appearances (12 starts). Medlen wasn’t at his best on Saturday, leaving several pitches up in the strike zone, and Tigers hitters didn’t miss. Detroit roughed him up for five runs and 10 hits (two of them home runs) in 5.1 innings.
Lefty Mike Minor also came into Detroit with a 3-1 record, along with a 1.80 ERA. He looks ready to have a breakout season for the Braves. Against the Tigers, however, Minor lasted almost seven innings, but not before he allowed six runs on six hits (two of them homers).
2. Victor Martinez is OK, everyone. Before this weekend’s series with Atlanta, Martinez was carrying a .187 average and .492 OPS. For a guy who’s only job it is to hit, he wasn’t doing much of it. But it’s worth remembering that Martinez missed all of last season. That’s a long time to go without facing major league pitching. It stands to reason his timing would be off and his swing could be out of whack.
Additionally, one of the hazards of playing designated hitter is that a player doesn’t get to play the field and take his mind off struggles at the plate. That’s probably a reason why Jim Leyland played Martinez at first base on Saturday.
But Martinez looked like he’s clicking in the three games versus the Braves. He batted 4-for-12 with two doubles and three RBI. Now that his swing appears to be there, perhaps we’ll see Martinez hit for some power against the Twins and Astros this week.
3. Maybe this Jose Valverde thing will really work. It’s only been three games, of course. And in those appearances, a few batters have taken Valverde deep to the warning track and given Tigers fans a bit of a scare.
But his performance on Saturday is the one that provides some hope. Perhaps Valverde has never been a dominant, lights-out closer, per se, but he looked capable of being one by striking out B.J. Upton and Juan Francisco to close out Saturday’s win.
That two-seam fastball had some movement to it. According to MLB.com Gameday, Valverde hit 94 mph on the radar gun, showing the increased velocity the Tigers were talking about. He also mixed in a couple of splitters to Evan Gattis.
Perhaps it should also be encouraging that Valverde got three outs in a non-save situation Sunday night, something he was disastrous in last year. With no save on the line, Valverde had a 4.55 ERA, allowing 15 runs and 30 hits in 29.2 innings.
4. No Verlander, no Scherzer? No problem. The Tigers swept the Braves emphatically without Justin Verlander or Max Scherzer pitching in the series. I wasn’t crazy about Detroit signing Anibal Sanchez to a five-year, $80 million contract in the offseason, but maybe I need to drink a cup of shut the eff up. If Sanchez keeps pitching like he did on Friday night — striking out 17 Braves batters — can anybody match the Tigers’ top starting three?
Granted, the Braves strike out a lot, ranking second in MLB in that category. There are maybe two teams capable of whiffing that many times right now. The Tigers play that other club — the Houston Astros — this coming weekend. Oh, if only Sanchez was scheduled to face the Astros…
Nonetheless, it’s definitely notable that Verlander or Scherzer wasn’t the one to break Mickey Lolich’s team record for strikeouts in a game. Did anyone else think as they were watching the game that Sanchez might match the 20 strikeouts racked up by Roger Clemens and Kerry Wood? Maybe that was asking a bit much, especially since all those strikeouts took 121 pitches from Sanchez.
5. Matt Tuiasosopo might be the new starting left fielder. To be fair, Andy Dirks probably wouldn’t have started against left-hander pitchers Maholm and Minor. But he was also struggling badly going into the weekend, batting .167 with a .468 OPS and 12 strikeouts in 58 plate appearances.
Tuiasosopo made the most of his opportunity, batting 4-for-10 in the Braves series. That included a breakout 2-for-4 performance on Friday that included one homer and five RBI.
As it turns out, Dirks is batting a knee injury that’s bothered him since slamming into a wall during spring training. So he really can’t be properly judged, as he’s not playing at full strength. However, that injury is obviously preventing him from being productive. Maybe this is something Dirks has to just play through or he’ll get better by sitting out for a while and maybe even going on the disabled list. He and the Tigers have to figure that out in the next few days.
The Tigers would surely prefer to have Dirks’ left-handed bat in the lineup for balance. Putting Tuiasosopo in the batting order leaves only Alex Avila, Prince Fielder and the switch-hitting Victor Martinez batting from the left side against right-handed pitching.
But Tuiasosopo is putting up the better numbers right now, and it wouldn’t be the first time Leyland went with the hot hand at one of his corner outfield positions.
— Follow @iancass on Twitter