ALDS Game 2: Can Verlander find October dominance once more?
Start Time: 12:00 p.m. ET
Series: Orioles lead 1-0
Losing Game 1 wasn't a disaster for the Tigers, despite how ugly things got in the eighth inning. If they can pull out a win behind Justin Verlander in Game 2, they'll have split in Baltimore and stolen home field advantage. That also reduces the series to a best-of-three set with the first two games being played in Detroit and David Price and Max Scherzer scheduled to start the bookends. That sounds pretty good for the Tigers, but it's all dependent on a win in what will be the first of four Division Series games to be played on Friday.
Verlander's recent postseason track record is outstanding. In the last two postseasons, he has posted a 1.40 ERA in seven starts. In six of those starts, he has allowed a total of three runs, pitching a minimum of seven innings in each and striking out ten or more men in five of them. His only dud in that span came against the Giants in the 2012 World Series. Last October, after what was a disappointing regular season, Verlander allowed just one run in 23 innings over three starts, striking out 31 against just three walks. That's was pure dominance reminiscent of Verlander at his 2011-12 peak, but expecting more of the same this October would be foolish.
Both this year and last, Verlander finished the regular season with two strong starts, throwing 12 scoreless innings to finish 2013 and allowing just two runs in 15 1/3 innings to finish 2014. But if you look closer, those two finishes were not alike. In 2013, Verlander also struck out 22 men in those 13 innings and, per BrooksBaseball.net, averaged 95.4 miles per hour on his fastball in those final two starts after a season of reduced velocity. This year, Verlander struck out just 10 men in 3 1/3 more innings in his final two starts and averaged just shy of 93 miles per hour on his fastball. Last year's Verlander was experiencing a late-season rejuvenation. This year's, at best, is figuring out how to win with lesser stuff.
Indeed, those last two were Verlander's only quality starts this September. He posted a 6.05 ERA in the other three. On the season, he has not only seen his average fastball velocity dip below 94 miles per hour for the first time in his career, but has also seen his strikeout rate drop to 6.9 per nine innings, down two whiffs per nine from a year ago. Cover up the name, and it's easier to see that the Tigers' Game 2 starter posted an 88 ERA+, 1.40 WHIP, and 2.45 strikeout-to-walk ratio this year with a below-average strikeout rate. The Orioles, who torched Verlander for five runs in six innings the last time he came to Baltimore, won't be swinging at his name.
Still, the Tigers need either Verlander or their offense to step up in Game 2, because, as Game 1 illustrated, the Tigers' bullpen can't be trusted. Only the White Sox, Rockies and Astros had a higher bullpen ERA this year than the Tigers' 4.29 mark, and only the Rockies' relievers, with a hefty assist from Coors Field, allowed a higher OPS than the Tigers', whose opponents hit .270/.347/.406. In Game 1 of this Series, Joba Chamberlain, Joakim Soria, and Phil Coke combined to face ten batters, all in the bottom of the eighth inning, and retired just two of them. The other eight men they faced all reached base, seven of them coming around to score, as did the one runner Chamberlain inherited from starter Max Scherzer in that inning.
That was obviously an extreme example, one aided by a fielding error by shortstop Andrew Romine on the first batter Chamberlain faced, but it wasn't out of character. From July 24 through the end of the regular season, Chamberlain posted a 5.82 ERA and allowed four of his five inherited runners to score. Since June 27, Soria has posted a 5.30 ERA, though he has only allowed two of six inherited runners to score. The lefty Coke has actually pitched better recently than he did in the first half of the season, but as Jay Jaffe pointed out in yesterday's Game 1 preview, righties have torched him for a .333/.394/.476 line on the season. Game 1 didn't even include an appearance by closer Joe Nathan, who posted a 4.81 ERA on the season and blew seven saves, tied with deposed Nationals closer Rafael Soriano and the Twins' Glen Perkins for the most among pitchers who saved 10 or more games on the season.
That all sounds damning for Detroit, but they do have the benefit in Game 2 of running out a powerful, almost entirely righthanded lineup against a lefty flyball pitcher in homer-friendly Camden Yards. Don't underestimate Wei-Yin Chen, however. Not only did he best Verlander in ERA, ERA+ (108), WHIP (1.23), and strikeout-to-walk ratio (3.89) in 2014, but he also finished strong, posting a 2.58 ERA over his last dozen starts. Also, despite his flyball tendencies, he hasn't allowed a home run in his last three starts, allowed just one in five September turns, and hasn't allowed multiple home runs in a game since June 28.
Chen also hasn't faced the Tigers since 2012, and only four men on Detroit's ALDS roster have ever faced him at all, those four being Ian Kinsler, Miguel Cabrera, Torii Hunter, and Rajai Davis. Only Kinsler has had more than six plate appearances against the Taiwanese lefty. Chen doesn't have great stuff or a particularly deceptive delivery, but he throws hard enough (low-to-mid 90s), has a wide enough variety of pitches (fourseamer with movement, sinker, slider, curve, split), and hides the ball well enough in his windup that the Tigers' unfamiliarity with him could keep them off-balance and guessing.
Indeed, a typical Chen start finds him turning over the opposing line-up twice and faring even better on average on the third trip through than the second. Chen won't blow the Tigers away like Chris Tillman did in the first inning of Game 1, but he won't do them many favors either. He has walked as many as three men in a game just three times all season and didn't allow a home run in any of those starts. He has also hit just three batters all season, walking no one in those three games, and has thrown just two wild pitches.
This will be Chen's second postseason start in the major leagues. He faced the Yankees in Game 2 of the 2012 ALDS, also at Camden Yards, and held them to just two runs (one earned) over 6 2/3 innings and picked up the win. That performance against Verlander last October would have resulted in a loss. This October, given the relative strength of the two bullpens, an outing like that from Chen could put the Orioles up 2-0 in this series.