The Tigers’ Royal Choke Job

The Tigers’ projected domination of the 2012 American League Central never quite came off. However, after a disappointing first couple of months that saw them below .500, the Tigers have been winning ever since. They were looking forward to this weekend’s showdown at home in Detroit with the division-leading White Sox. Detroit was only two games back.. All they had to do was get through the three-game series with the Royals in Kansas City in order to set themselves up. Sure, Anibel Sanchez had been mostly terrible since coming to the Tigers, and Rick Porcello was having yet another disappointing season (at least in terms of ERA), but they were matched up against Bruce Chen and Jeremy Guthrie, respectively. No way the Tigers offense doesn’t light those guys up, right? If that wasn’t enough, Justin Verlander was matched up against Luis Mendoza.

According to Cool Standings’ “Smart” standings, going into the series in KC the Tigers had a 32 percent chance of winning the division and 61.4 percent chance of making the playoffs. A series win in KC would set them up nicely going into the weekend and for a shot at the playoffs generally. Things didn’t exactly work out that way. The Tigers got swept. As of today, the “smart” standings have Detroit down to a 40 percent chance of making the playoffs. What?

One could point out that the Royals are only one “spot” behind the Tigers in the division and that Kansas City has the second-best August record in the American League as of today. Those are poor “excuses,” though. Even after the sweep, the Royals are ten games behind the Tigers, and are in third mostly by default due to the horrible-ness of the Twins and Cleveland’s epic collapse. As for the Royals’ August record, I only mention it because if I don’t, someone will. One good month does not demonstrate anything special about a team’s true talent level that one should take as predictive over the full season.

The Royals being a bad team and the Tigers being a good team does not mean that Detroit should win every game or series, or that they were “looking past” the Royals. This is not meant as some sort of moralizing “dressing down.” It simply was an ugly way to get to this weekend’s big series, and was somewhat punctuated by the way the Tigers lost in close games one would have expected them to have won.

Tuesday’s game was probably the strangest of the three relative to expectations. Verlander versus Mendoza was not a promising matchup for the Royals, with Verlander looking every bit as dominant in 2012 as he did last year and Royals’ starter Luis Mendoza having a much better year than might have been expected — almost mediocre (4.51 ERA after the game). Mendoza started the game about like one would expect — by getting knocked around by the Tigers for three runs, capped by a two-run shot from Delmon Young.

It looked like things would get ugly quickly for the Royals, but after striking out the first two batters he faced, Verlander have up a double, a single, a double, and a single and the Royals tied the game. Things got even weirder when Verlander took the mound again the bottom of the second, and the Royals strung together a series of hits that scored four more runs, and suddently it was a 7-3 game with Verlander on the hook for seven runs. Verlander ended up going over five innings and giving up eight runs.

Despite a mess of a start from Verlander, it was still Luis Mendoza the Tigers were facing, and they managed to knock him out after five innings and six runs, and added two more off of the Royals’ (usually tough) bullpen to tie the game. However, lefty Phil Coke gave up a double to Mike Moustakas (who has a career 68 wRC+ versus southpaws).

The Tigers still had a chance to win it, and almost did in the bottom of the ninth. With two outs and runners on the corners, Delmon Young had a monster WPA play with a home run… almost. It was hard to tell, but it was foul. A wild end to a bizarre game, and the Tigers’ playoff probability dropped to 56 percent.

The next two games did not the same back-and-forth run scoring, but held their own intrigues. Wednesday’s game featured Anibel Sanchez coming off of his first good start for the Tigers, having shut down the Blue Jays just the week before. Sanchez only struck out one Royal in seven innings, but did not walk any, either. He only have up one run on an eric Hosmer single.

The problem was that the Tigers got shut out by eight innings of Bruce Chen and one innings of Greg Holland. Holland is a good reliever, but legends aside, Bruce Chen is back to his ol’ gopher-balling self in 2012 — mostly. Not Wednesday night. Given that the Tigers are tilt to the right side and are a power hitting team, one would have given them a good chance of hitting one out against the left-handed, soft-tossing fly ball pitcher. Nope. The Tigers playoff odds dropped under 46 percent.

Last night’s game was a chance for the Tigers to at least get one back, as the White Sox lost to the Orioles. Rick Porcello was taking the mound, and while his ERA is nothing special this year, his FIP and xFIP indicated improvement. Moreover, Detroit was going up against Jeremy Guthrie, who, despite pitching pretty well since coming over to the Royals in the Jonathan Sanchez trade, is basically a right-handed Bruce Chen.

Well, hey, the Tigers couldn’t hit the left-handed version, why should we expect them to hit the right-handed clone? They did hit against Guthrie, actually: 10 hits and only three strikeouts over seven innings. Yet they produced only one run against Guthrie before getting shut down by the Royals bullpen. This should not be put at Porcello’s feet: yes, he did give up two runs, including Alex Gordon‘s decisive solo homer (Sonic Slam!) in the sixth. But the Tigers offense simply could not capitalize on their opportunities, and fittingly ended the game on a Miguel Cabrera double play (thought it must be said that Alcides Escobar made an crazy play to finish the Tigers off). That brought the Tigers’ playoff probability to its current 40 percent chance.

Using a word like “Choke” in the title is admittedly attention-grabbing, but probably unfair. Good teams lose, and get swept by, bad teams in a regular basis. Moreover, the Tigers lost three one-run games in a row. There is not reason to think that Justin Verlander is a bad pitcher because of one bad start. Detroit fans should not worry about the offense because it got shut town by Bruce Chen and Jeremy Guthrie. These things happen.

This is not a moralizing post about how the Tigers were “distracted” by their big series against the White Sox this weekend or anything like that. However, their goal for the season is the playoffs. If they sweep the White Sox, they can tie the division. Moreover, there are still games after that, and, of course, there are two wildcard spots. However, Detroit is currently not in line for one of them — the As, Orioles, and Rays are all ahead of them. That makes this series even bigger, as a division title may well offer the Tigers the best way into the post-season.

Playoff probability depends on projections, with all of the uncertainty that implies. But even on a more optimistic projection, the Tigers’ chances for the playoffs are much worse today then they were Tuesday morning, making the Chicago series that much “bigger.” However, if the Tigers fail to make the playoffs, it may be these three one-run losses to the Royals, rather than this weekend’s series with the White Sox, that the team looks back on with regret.

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Matt Klaassen reads and writes obituaries in the Greater Toronto Area. If you can't get enough of him, follow him on Twitter.

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