July 9, 2013
What You Need to Know
Tigers Back on Top
The Monday Takeaway
Over the last four days, though, Jim Leyland’s club has reasserted its strength, ensuring that the Indians’ stay atop the standings would be a short one. The Tigers won the first two games of the four-game set at Progressive Field, running the home team’s losing streak to four contests and their own winning streak to five. A 9-6 victory on Sunday gave the Indians a chance to salvage a series split on Monday night, which would have left them just 1 ½ games behind first-place Detroit.
To notch the split, however, the Indians needed to get past Max Scherzer, the first-half Cy Young Award favorite whose record was a flawless 13-0, and behind whom the Tigers had not lost since May 31. Fortunately, the three-man crew of Scott Kazmir, Bryan Shaw, and Cody Allen kept pace with Scherzer for seven innings, the duration of the right-hander’s outing, and a two-out, two-run single by Lonnie Chisenhall in the bottom of the second proved sufficient to keep the game tied going into extras.
Allen and Joe Smith traded zeroes with Bruce Rondon in the eighth. Chris Perez put the pressure on Drew Smyly, but the young lefty matched his goose egg in the ninth. And in the 10th inning, after Matt Albers unraveled, Joaquin Benoit held firm.
A two-out, two-run double by Victor Martinez, which plated Miguel Cabrera and Prince Fielder—who were both issued two-out walks—proved to be the deciding blow. The Indians put two men on base with two away in the bottom of the 10th on singles by Nick Swisher and Michael Brantley, but Mike Aviles struck out swinging to end the game.
Come October, this 4-2 Tigers victory may seem inconsequential, just one game in a 162-game season. But Monday’s win provided the favorites with a bit more cushion, padding their already-excellent odds of winning the division and setting the Indians back in their quest to return to the playoffs in the first year of Francona’s tenure.
The closer role, one of the few major concerns that plagued Leyland’s roster throughout the first half, appears safe thanks to Benoit’s right arm, as the 35-year-old is now a perfect seven-for-seven in his save opportunities. With a 1.73 ERA and a 46-to-10 K:BB in 36 1/3 innings, Benoit has admirably answered the call that rookie Bruce Rondon and retread Jose Valverde could not. The Indians’ bullpen—which had a hand in both of the losses in the Royals series before Monday’s extra-inning flub—has looked to be the more porous unit of late.
With a deeper rotation, a more powerful heart of the order, and now a more reliable bullpen, the Tigers enjoy an edge over the Indians in virtually every area—save for defense, where Cleveland is in the middle of the pack and Detroit ranks at the bottom, and baserunning, where the Indians rate fifth in the majors and the Tigers again bring up the rear. The Indians’ return to first place was fleeting. And with no head-to-head meetings between the Central rivals for nearly a month, their next one is unlikely to come anytime soon.
Monday’s Matchup in Review
Matchup of the Day
Tonight, if past trends hold, the left-hander should have the upper hand on the shortstop. Desmond, a right-handed hitter, has generally performed well against southpaws, and he posted a .303/.331/.571 triple-slash line while enjoying the platoon advantage in 2012. But Hamels is one of the select few southpaws who have given Desmond fits, and the .635 OPS to which he has held him is Desmond’s lowest versus any lefty whom he has faced at least 20 times.
Overall, Desmond has gone 5-for-28 with Hamels toeing the rubber, notching two doubles, a triple, and a home run. In their 30 head-to-head meetings, he has also walked once and struck out eight times.
As you might have discerned from all the blue dots in the above plot, Hamels’ changeup has been the great equalizer against Desmond. He has used it as a put-away offering in deep counts, as a backward-approach setup pitch to keep Desmond off of his fastball, and even as a standalone piece that the 27-year-old cannot seem to touch. Desmond, who thrived on fastballs last year, is not an altogether poor off-speed hitter, but Hamels’ changeup is one of the best in the league, and all three of those varied plans has yielded a strikeout.
On the rare occasions when Desmond has gotten the better of Hamels, the culprit has almost always been an early-count fastball mistake. Desmond was one of the league’s most aggressive hitters in 2012, when he averaged 3.37 pitcher per plate appearance (a mark trailed only by Erick Aybar, who saw 3.28), and though he has become more patient this year (3.71), he will not stare at many first- or second-pitch fastball strikes. Hamels learned that the hard way on April 7, 2010, when he teed up this gopher ball, and again on May 6, 2012, when this get-me-over heater turned into a three-bagger.
With the changeup affording Hamels an obvious two-strike-count advantage, the key for the left-hander is to force Desmond into a pitcher-friendly count or to coax him into swinging at a well-placed pitch early. Desmond is 1-for-18 against Hamels in plate appearances that have lasted three pitches or longer, and the lone knock was a single.
Given the various strategies that have done the trick in the past, Hamels can base his game plan for Desmond on what is working on this particular evening. If his fastball command is sharp, then he can paint the corners with the four-seamer or cutter to set up the changeup in deeper counts. If he has greater confidence in his off-speed arsenal, then he might choose to pitch backward or stick with the changeup exclusively if the shortstop steps in with runners on base. And since Desmond has only twice seen Hamels’ curveball, the element of surprise is in the lefty’s back pocket, too.
Nonetheless, for all of the credentials on Hamels’ head-to-head résumé, it takes only one mistake to spoil a fine outing. Desmond has just one hit off of Hamels in the last two-plus seasons, but if a fastball crosses the middle of the plate, he will be ready to pounce (7:05 p.m. ET).
What to Watch for on Tuesday