There are four undefeated teams left in baseball, and two of them begin a series today in Detroit. The Tampa Bay Rays and Detroit Tigers had sweeps on Opening Weekend of highly-hyped, large market teams, with the Rays handling the Yankees and the Tigers beating up on the Red Sox. The Tigers succeeded in the first series of the year by bludgeoning the hell out of the Red Sox, scoring 26 runs in three games. Their pitching staff was good too for the first two games of the series, allowing just a pair of runs before an implosion in game three led to Boston putting a dozen on the board. The Rays were almost the inverse of the Tigers, with one well-pitched game in their sweep of the Yankees and a pair of games where runs were plentiful for both teams.
The pitching matchups for the three game series are impressive. The first game will feature young Rays pitcher Matt Moore, expected to be a top contender for AL Rookie of the Year, taking on the youngest Tigers starter, Rick Porcello. Game two is a battle of the aces, pitting James Shields against Justin Verlander. And then in the final game, the ptiching matchup takes a bit of a step backwards, with Jeff Niemann going for the Rays against Drew Smyly of the Tigers. Oddly, all three games in Detroit for the series are afternoon games, starting at 1:05.
In the first two games of the series, offense will likely be at a premium, especially for the Tigers. Detroit’s offense has been fantastic so far this season, headlined by Miguel Cabrera and his three homers. But that’s not to slight Alex Avila or Prince Fielder, each of whom have two homers this season, or Austin Jackson and his eight hits at the top of the lineup. The Tigers WILL score runs, but the question that remains is “how many?” as they take on strong Tampa Bay pitching over the first two games. Tampa Bay’s offense, while good against the Yankees, isn’t anywhere nearly as good as Detroit’s. Evan Longoria and Carlos Pena are one heck of a powerful duo, but the Rays are still trying to establish starters at a couple of positions on the field, with a few guys getting starts at various positions so far.
Game one is the key for the Rays, with Moore going up against Rick Porcello, who’s been roundly unimpressive during his tenure in the majors. Porcello had a 4.75 ERA last year and had a very low strikeout rate with the team, something that’s plagued him over his whole career. But at just 23 years old, Porcello is just six months older than Moore, and has much more major league experience. Everyone is expecting Moore to immediately step in and dominate, but making his first start of the season (after only seven innings in the majors total) against a potent lineup like Detroit’s could be absolutely devastating for him.
Game two is probably going to be extremely low scoring, with a battle of aces in Verlander and Shields. Both guys throw a ton of innings, and there will probably not be a lot of bullpen activity in this one. I’d look for something more along the lines of a 3-2 type game. Verlander was dominant in his season debut against the Red Sox, but walked away with a no decision after Jose Valverde blew the save. Shields got hammered in his debut against the Yankees, but a late Rays rally prevented him from adding a loss to his resume. If Shields gets off to a start on Wednesday like he did last week against the Yankees, it’ll be a frustrating day for the Rays facing Verlander.
Game three is the wild card of the series, with the mediocre Niemann taking on the young and unproven Smyly. This will be Smyly’s major league debut, and the 22 year-old has a very limited time in the upper minors, with just 1 2/3 innings pitched in AAA for his career. He struck out more than a batter per inning last season, but is still very raw and a complete wild card. Rays fans know what they’re getting out of Niemann at this point – mediocrity. He has a career ERA over 4.00 with a strikeout to walk ratio a hair above 2 to 1. He’s really just a back-end guy.
The key to this series is Tampa Bay’s pitching. If they’re able to limit the Tigers offense, they Rays can win the series. But if Detroit’s offense goes ape like it did against the Red Sox, the Rays could be in for a world of hurt.