If the Detroit Tigers have any remaining doubters, they could be silenced with a strong showing this weekend.
The Tigers seek to extend their division lead over the defending World Series champions when they open a three-game set with the Chicago White Sox at U.S. Cellular Field on Friday.
Detroit (76-38) enters this game with the best record in the major leagues and an 8 1/2 -game lead over the White Sox (67-46) in the AL Central. However, the Tigers just concluded a six-game homestand with their first series loss since July 3-5 at Oakland, dropping two of three games to division rival Minnesota.
“We put ourselves in a position to make a run at something, but we’ve done nothing yet,” Detroit manager Jim Leyland said after his team totaled just four hits in Wednesday’s 4-3 loss to the Twins. “If we take the attitude that we’re home free, we won’t get home. The beauty of the pennant race is to be the best, you have to beat the best.”
Although the Tigers have held sole possession of the division lead since May 21, they have lost six of nine this season to the White Sox.
The division rivals will play two more series against each other—Aug. 21-24 at Comerica Park and Sept. 18-20 in Chicago—and those contests may determine if the White Sox can contend for a second straight AL Central crown.
“It’s do or die every time we play against them if you want to continue to fight for the (division),” Chicago manager Ozzie Guillen said. “If we get swept by them, then we’ve got to think about a different direction.”
Justin Verlander (14-4, 2.70 ERA) hasn’t pitched since Aug. 1, but looks to become the majors’ first 15-game winner and win his eighth straight decision when he takes the mound for Detroit in the series opener. Leyland decided to skip the 23-year-old rookie right-hander’s last scheduled starts in order to rest his tired arm.
“All year, they’ve been talking about doing something and I think this is a great place to do it,” said Verlander, whose 135 1-3 innings pitched are five more than he threw in all of 2005, mostly in the minors. “Better to do it now than in September.”
Verlander will seek better results against the White Sox this time. He is 0-2 with an 11.42 ERA in two starts versus Chicago, allowing 11 runs and 14 hits — including four homers—in just 8 2-3 innings.
Verlander’s last loss came at U.S. Cellular Field on June 7, when he gave up four runs in six innings of a 4-3 defeat. He is 7-0 with a 2.04 ERA in nine outings since that contest.
The White Sox counter with Jose Contreras (10-4, 3.75), who will try to avoid his fifth loss in six starts since the All-Star break after opening the season 9-0. Contreras tied a season-high by allowing six runs in 6 2-3 innings of Sunday’s 7-3 loss at Toronto.
The right-hander has already faced the Tigers three times this season, going 2-1 with a 2.05 ERA in those outings including the June 7 victory over Verlander. He is 7-3 with a 3.30 ERA in 14 career starts versus Detroit.
Contreras has dominated Tigers designated hitter Dmitri Young, who is 2-for-22 (.091) with a homer and eight strikeouts against the right-hander.
The White Sox defeated the AL East-leading New York Yankees 5-4 on Thursday, taking two out of three games in a series where each contest was decided by one run. It was the first home series win for Chicago since taking three of four from Baltimore July 3-6.
“We have (10) games against the Tigers,” said Javier Vazquez, who earned his 100th career win. “I know they’re playing great, but we can’t concentrate on them. We know that if we play good baseball from here on, we might have a chance.”