While the Detroit Tigers’ four-game visit to Rangers Ballpark in Arlington wasn’t disastrous, it seems fair to say that it could have gone better.
A match-up between two of the top teams in the American League provided an opportunity for early bragging rights for league supremacy. While the Tigers came in with the most productive offense in MLB, the Texas Rangers were pitching very effectively.
But it was the Texas offense that pounded Detroit pitching in three of the four games, reminding us that the Rangers can still slug their way to victory.
So did we actually learn anything from the Tigers losing three of four games to the Rangers? Here are five things that come to mind, as Detroit gets ready for a two-game set with the Cleveland Indians.
1. Miguel Cabrera is going to win another AL MVP. Maybe that’s selling him short. Could he win a second consecutive Triple Crown? That seems like a bit much, though Cabrera does lead MLB with a .387 batting average and 47 RBI. His 11 home runs are only two behind the AL lead as well.
The Tigers are in contention, which will certainly help Cabrera’s cause. (Of course, Tigers fans would like their team to be in a better position than 2.5 games behind the Indians for first place in the AL Central. Perhaps they can take care of that during the next two games versus the Tribe at Progressive Field.) Detroit’s third baseman also left a major impression on voters with a huge performance in a nationally televised game against another playoff contender.
Obviously, one game isn’t going to determine anyone’s MVP vote. (If it did, that voter’s Baseball Writers Association of America membership card should probably be rescinded.) But Cabrera’s three home runs on Sunday night, with the national ESPN crew in attendance, was a strong reminder that the reigning AL MVP is playing at the height of his abilities. He batted 9-for-16 (.563) in the four-game series. There’s no better hitter in baseball right now.
And unlike last year, there may not be a suitable challenger to Cabrera for top player honors. The biggest threat might be Robinson Cano of the New York Yankees. Can the Baltimore Orioles’ Chris Davis keep up his current production? Maybe Dustin Pedroia? Why am I listing hitters only from the AL East?
2. Detroit’s starting pitching isn’t invincible. Perhaps this was just one bad series, with most of the Tigers’ starters pitching poorly in one series.
Justin Verlander had what might have been the worst start of his career, giving up eight runs in less than three innings. Two bases-loaded walks and poor location on several pitches call into question whether Verlander’s mechanics are out of sync or even if he’s injured.
Anibal Sanchez certainly had his worst start of the season, allowing five earned runs and nine hits as he had trouble finding the strike zone. He couldn’t make it out of the third inning either.
In addition, Doug Fister couldn’t help Detroit salvage a series split on Sunday. At least he was able to get through the third inning. Unfortunately, he couldn’t last through the fifth after giving up four runs during that frame.
Surprisingly, the Tigers’ starting pitching standout was Rick Porcello, who allowed just one run in 5.2 innings. Porcello also racked up six strikeouts, which was encouraging. He’s given up three runs or fewer in his past four starts, while striking out 24 batters in 25 innings. (Porcello credits his changeup for the improvement, according to MLB.com’s Jason Beck.)
Detroit might just hang on to this guy after all. Right, Lynn Henning?
Making matters worse, the Tigers don’t really have a viable replacement for him. Andy Dirks batted 3-for-13 (.231) with no walks batting leadoff for three games in Texas. Omar Infante hit well against lefty Derek Holland on Sunday, going 2-for-5.
Maybe Jim Leyland should continue to bat Infante leadoff, regardless of whether a right- or left-handed pitcher is starting against the Tigers. Fortunately for Detroit, Jackson should be back next Tuesday when he’s eligible to come off the disabled list.
4. The Rangers are the best team in baseball right now. If one team in this series won three games or completed a four-game sweep, a strong argument could have been made that either Texas or Detroit was the top club in the AL.
While it’s not a definitive statement that could last throughout the season, the Rangers certainly asserted themselves early in the season as an AL favorite. The Tigers scored some runs against a pitching staff that allowed the fewest runs in the league coming into the series. That’s encouraging for the next time these two teams meet — and perhaps further down the line, in the postseason.
Of course, Texas could say the same after pounding three of Detroit’s best starting pitchers, something that would presumably give the Tigers an advantage in a five- or seven-game playoff series.
5. The bullpen continues to be an issue. Detroit’s relief struggles were exacerbated by the starting pitchers not being able to work deep into ballgames. Having your starter chased before the fifth inning is going to expose the soft underbelly of a team’s bullpen, namely its middle relief.
That’s true for almost every major league club. The Tigers are obviously no exception to this, as even their closer situation is relatively uncertain.
To be fair, Detroit’s middle relief pitched relatively well in the first three games of the series. Darin Downs and fresh-from-Toledo Evan Reed each gave up a run on Thursday in their combined 5.1 innings. But Jose Ortega, Drew Smyly, Joaquin Benoit and Jose Valverde protected a one-run lead with 3.1 innings of scoreless baseball on Friday. Smyly and Phil Coke allowed one run in 5.1 innings after Sanchez was knocked out early on Saturday.
That appeared to have tapped the bullpen out for the final game of the weekend, however. Ortega and Coke (which sounds like a taqueria special) were hammered for six runs in 1.2 innings of work, killing whatever chances the Tigers had at a rally.
Would the results have been better if Octavio Dotel wasn’t injured and Al Alburquerque hadn’t been demoted to the minors? We’ll never know, but this question will surely come up again several times this season.