Not that long ago, the Detroit Tigers appeared to be the AL team most certain to win its division. By the end of play Friday night, Detroit could find itself tied for the top spot in the Central.
Looking to stay alone in first, the Tigers will give the ball to Jeremy Bonderman—who’s gone from a Cy Young Award contender to a struggling 24-year-old pitcher—when they open a three-game set against the Baltimore Orioles.
The Tigers have faltered badly for more than a month, and hope Bonderman can win for the first time in 10 starts. Detroit (87-59) lost 11-3 to the Texas Rangers on Wednesday to fall to 11-23 since Aug. 8. Only Tampa Bay, at 10-22, has a worst record in that span.
The slide has reduced the Tigers’ division lead from 10 games over Chicago and 10 1/2 over Minnesota on Aug. 7, to one game ahead of Minnesota and three in front of Chicago.
The Twins open a three-game series with Cleveland on Friday, while the White Sox visit AL West-leading Oakland.
“We’ll just have to keep grinding it out,” Tigers manager Jim Leyland said. “The White Sox lose (Tuesday) night, and they win (Wednesday). The Twins lose (Wednesday) and we lose (Wednesday). This is going to go down to the end. We just have to win enough games.”
To do that, Leyland needs Bonderman (11-8, 4.18 ERA) to return to form. The right-hander is 0-4 with a 5.50 ERA in his last nine starts and gave up seven runs in 5 2-3 innings of a 12-1 rout Sunday by the Twins, who took three of four in the crucial series.
“I’m throwing the pitches the same as all year, but I’m just getting in trouble a lot more lately,” Bonderman said.
Leyland feels opponents may be making adjustments against Bonderman.
“I think teams are charging him a little bit,” Leyland said. “When he gets that slider down and in to left-handers’ back foot, that’s OK. But if he leaves it up and they’re charging it, it’s hard like his fastball, and there’s not enough differential between the speed of the pitches.”
Bonderman may have a tough time stopping his slide against the Orioles. The right-hander hasn’t faced Baltimore (63-83) since 2004, but is 0-3 against with an 8.40 ERA in three starts against them.
Another major reason for the Tigers’ slide has been their problems at the plate. Detroit went from a .281 batting average on Aug. 7, among the best in the league, to .245 in the last 34 games.
The Tigers, though, may have a good opportunity to break out against Baltimore’s Hayden Penn (0-2, 36.82).
The 21-year-old right-hander lasted only three innings and was pounded for seven runs and nine hits, including three homers, in a 9-4 loss to the New York Yankees on Sunday. Penn actually reduced his ERA from 108.00.
“Right now, I’m searching for an answer,” Penn said. “That’s twice. All I can do is go back out there and pitch the next time I get the ball. Like I said last time, there’s nothing I can say or try to improve on. I just need to go out there and pitch.”
Penn gave up eight runs and was pulled after two-thirds of an inning during a 10-1 loss to Oakland in his first start of the season Sept. 3.
“He’s still a youngster,” Orioles manager Sam Perlozzo said. “I think you’ve just got to have patience—the same patience that we’ve had with all our young kids. We’d like to see him get through five or six innings and get some work in.”
Penn made it to the fifth inning in his only start against the Tigers on May 28, 2005, getting pulled after 4 2-3 after allowing three runs—one earned— and five hits in a 5-3 loss.
He gets the start Friday after Baltimore squandered a three-run lead and lost 6-5 to Boston on Thursday for its fifth loss in six games.