But when the teams square off Thursday in Oakland to begin a four-game series, the A’s will hold a half-game advantage over the team that many had pegged for a deep run into October.
The Tigers have been just an average team in the season’s first six weeks. The addition of Prince Fielder to an already talented roster hasn’t yielded dividends yet; the team is in the middle of the pack in nearly all offensive categories. At 15-15, the Tigers are in second place in the AL Central, two games behind the upstart Cleveland Indians, and have lost 10 of their last 17.
Possible culprits as to why the team isn’t atop the American League Central are starting pitchers not named Justin Verlander and Drew Smyly. The three other pitchers in the rotation have ERAs of 4.91 (Rick Porcello), 6.32 (Max Scherzer) and 8.18 (Adam Wilk) in 15 starts. The good news for the Tigers is Doug Fister’s return to the rotation after being out a month with a strained muscle in his left side. He hurt himself in his first start of the season April 7, but came back to throw seven innings of four-hit ball against the Mariners on Monday.
Detroit is hitting .251 as a team with a 711 OPS. Those numbers rank 14th and 15th in baseball, respectively. Austin Jackson has outshined the two presumptive MVP candidates in the middle of the lineup, Miguel Cabrera and Fielder. The toolsy 25-year-old center fielder is off to a great start in 2012, hitting .324/.395/.523 out of the leadoff spot for all 28 games he’s played.
Unlike Albert Pujols, Fielder doesn’t appear to be having trouble adjusting to the AL after coming over as a free agent from the National League. He’s hitting a very solid .318/.398/.486, but has just five homers to his credit. The law of averages says there’s more power to come, but it should be noted that Fielder is hitting .284 at spacious Comerica Park, compared to .375 on the road.
Cabrera is not having a bad season by any means either, but his numbers this far into the season to do not align with last year’s. Cabrera finished 2011 with a terrific .344/.448/.586 slash line but has a more pedestrian .272/.333/.491 line his first six weeks this year. Moreover, he’s not making the same type of contact, with a .264 BABIP compared to .365 a year ago. Perhaps he’s pressing just a tad due to the increased expectations with Fielder along side or maybe transitioning across the diamond to third base is having an adverse effect. Either way, many major leaguers would take his 2012 slash line in a heartbeat.
The A’s backed up their 5-4 East Coast road trip by splitting the brief two-game set against the Blue Jays. Monday’s first game featured another late-inning comeback, highlighted by Brandon Inge’s walk-off grand slam in his first game as an Athletic in Oakland. This weekend’s series will be the first time the club’s newest third basemen faces the team that released him April 26. So far with the A’s, Inge is hitting just .179, but his two homers have been vital in his team’s victories.
A's manager Bob Melvin was forced to shuffle his starting rotation after Brandon McCarthy felt some discomfort in his throwing shoulder during a bullpen session over the weekend. McCarthy was scheduled to throw Tuesday, but his turn in the rotation was skipped as a precaution. It’s the same shoulder blade that caused the right-hander problems in the past, including last year when he spent six weeks on the disabled list. Reports say that McCarthy felt fine while playing catch on Wednesday and should be good to go for a start on Saturday.
Also on the injury front, A's rookie Yoenis Cespedes missed the Toronto series while dealing with a strain in his left hand. X-rays revealed no structural damage on Wednesday. He could try to take some swings on Thursday, but is day-to-day for now after feeling the strain during batting practice before Tuesday’s game. It was reported that he felt an initial twinge in the hand last week in Boston, but it wasn’t enough to keep him from playing.
Thursday’s first game of the series will feature Max Scherzer (1-3, 6.32) and Bartolo Colon (3-2, 2.83). Scherzer, known as a ‘trick or treat’ pitcher throughout his career, got off to a rough start to the season, but pitched very well in his last outing. Against the White Sox on Saturday, the hard-throwing righty tossed seven innings, striking out nine and allowing just four hits. It’s always tough to predict what kind of outing he will have. He has the power arm that scouts love, but has yet to harness his stuff consistently. Hitters are batting .313 against him and he has a WHIP of 1.72 in 2012.
Colon is coming off an outing in Tampa Bay where he gave up three home runs to the Rays. Luckily for him, they were all solo shots and they accounted for all the runs he allowed on the day. He lasted just five innings and got the no decision while pitching with a stomach bug. On Thursday, he’ll be going for his first win since April 18 (three starts ago) and hopes to regain the feel for his fastball that made him so effective early in the year. A win over Detroit would put him at the .500 mark for his career against the Tigers. Colon is 8-9 with a 5.25 ERA versus Detroit lifetime.
On Friday, the A’s will send Tom Milone (4-2, 4.42) to the hill where he’s thrown best: the mound at O.Co Coliseum. He’ll go against Rick Porcello (3-2, 4.91). Milone struggled in his outing in Boston last week, allowing seven runs in less than five innings, but rebounded to get the win Sunday against the Rays. The left-hander battled back after a rough, four-run first inning in Tampa to make it through five frames, allowing five runs. His offense picked him up, powered by Inge’s three-run homer, and got the 9-5 win.
Milone will be happy to be back in Oakland. He has yet to allow a run in the Coliseum and has held hitters to just a .122 average in 16 innings.
Porcello hasn’t quite been the same since his breakout rookie season in 2009 when he went 14-9 with a 3.96 ERA. In his three seasons since, his ERAs have been 4.92, 4.75 and 4.91 for the 23-year-old. Those numbers would leave some to believe his development was accelerated too quickly. He only made 24 starts in High-A before the Tigers promoted him to the big leagues as a 20-year-old. While his ERA is roughly unchanged from the last two seasons, his WHIP of 1.255 is noticeably better this year. He’s become more reliant on his fastball and slider as time has gone on, while increasing the velocity on his slider up to 84 MPH this year after it was just above 80 MPH his rookie season.
The right-hander is looking for his third-straight win after allowing four runs over his last 14.1 frames.
Saturday’s game will showcase the two pitchers coming off injuries in Fister (0-0, 0.00) and McCarthy (2-3, 2.96). Fister has yet to give up an earned run this year and has thrown very well against the A’s in his career after spending three years with the Mariners. In 10 starts, the 6’8” righty is 5-3 with a 2.55 ERA against Oakland.
Should McCarthy be healthy enough to pitch, he’ll be looking for his third-straight win after going 0-3 in his first five starts. He made the best start of his season since Opening Night on May 2 in Boston by allowing five hits and a run in 6.2 innings. The club should be concerned with his discomfort in his shoulder blade given McCarthy's history. Look for the staff ace to be on a limited pitch count.
Jarrod Parker (1-0, 1.80) will look to finish off the series with his third-consecutive quality start with the A’s on Sunday. In 20 innings, Parker has allowed just four runs on 15 hits since joining the rotation April 25. He might only have one win, but his team is 3-0 in games he’s pitched, with the latest being Monday’s win where Inge hit the dramatic grand slam in the bottom of the ninth inning.
Parker has impressed the A’s with his control and poise on the rubber. Despite not having his best command Monday, he still threw seven innings and only allowed four hits.
But it will be tough sledding for the youngster, as he faces the reigning American League MVP and Cy Young Award winner Justin Verlander (3-1, 2.63). Blessed with one of the most explosive arms in baseball, Verlander had one of the best single seasons in baseball history in 2011. He went 24-5 and threw 251 innings, allowing just 174 hits with 250 strikeouts. He threw four complete games and two shutouts. So far in 2012, his walk rate is down and he’s managed to cut his home run rate by more than half, from .86 to .35 per nine innings.
With the A’s still the worst hitting team in the majors at just .215, they are as likely a candidate as any to become the third team no-hit by Verlander in his illustrious career.