For all the offseason hype they received after adding one of the game's premier power hitters to a team that was already one of baseball's best, the Detroit Tigers enter interleague play with the same record as the Pittsburgh Pirates.
They didn't fare well against the NL last season with one exception - Justin Verlander, who looks to continue his interleague dominance Friday night when the Pirates visit Comerica Park for the first of three.
Many were ready to hand the AL Central to the Tigers (18-20) after they signed Prince Fielder, and considering they won the division by 15 games last year with a similar roster, those predictions seemed appropriate.
Instead, Detroit finds itself four games back of first-place Cleveland - though that's not an unfamiliar spot. The Tigers trailed the Indians by five on May 20, 2011, the day they began interleague play against Pittsburgh (18-20).
No one seemed too eager to look at the bright side after suffering a two-game sweep to the MLB-worst Twins with Thursday's 4-3 defeat, though.
"The only thing that has been consistent for this team is the inconsistency, and that's mind-boggling to me,'' manager Jim Leyland said. "We just aren't putting together the combinations that we need to win.''
Leyland stopped short of using one popular word to describe his club, which hasn't won back-to-back games since April 15-18.
"I don't think the team's disappointing," he told the Tigers' official website. "I think the performance, all of us, everybody, has been disappointing right now. But I love the team. I think it's a good team. I think it's going to come out. "
It usually does when Verlander (4-1, 2.47 ERA) takes the hill, particularly in interleague play. Verlander is 15-2 with a 2.94 ERA in 20 starts versus the NL, going 3-0 with a 0.75 ERA in four outings last year.
Detroit went 4-11 in interleague last season when giving the ball to anyone other than Verlander, including two losses in Pittsburgh.
The reigning AL MVP won his fourth straight decision Sunday in Oakland, limiting the A's to a solo homer and one other hit over seven innings of a 3-1 victory. He did discover a tiny blister on his right thumb, but didn't seem too concerned.
"I wouldn't say it's been bothering me, I've just been cognizant of it," Verlander said. "... I've been able to deal with it fine. I'm not worried about it going forward."
There hasn't been much that's been able to slow him down as he seeks a 51st consecutive start of at least six innings. Only Bob Gibson, Steve Carlton and Catfish Hunter have gone 50, with Carlton's 69 from 1979-82 the last streak longer than Verlander's.
Verlander went seven innings in his only career start versus Pittsburgh, a 6-2 home win June 11, 2010.
That Pirates team finished averaged an NL-low 3.62 runs, and this one is averaging a major league-worst 2.92. But Pittsburgh had a solid night at the plate Thursday in Washington, getting two homers from Andrew McCutchen and recording double-digit hits for the first time in 13 games in a 5-3 win.
"He's one of those special players that can do everything," Nationals third baseman Ryan Zimmerman said. "He's fun to watch."
McCutchen is certainly doing all he can to keep the Pirates' offense afloat. The center fielder is hitting .486 with five homers and a 1.479 OPS over his last 10 games, and he has a .500 on-base percentage in nine games versus Detroit.
Charlie Morton (2-3, 4.05) will oppose Verlander hoping to solve his road woes. He's 1-4 with a 6.55 ERA in his last seven starts away from PNC Park, where he held Houston to one earned run over six innings Saturday in a 5-2 victory.
The right-hander may not have to worry about facing the Tigers' leadoff hitter in his first look at them. Austin Jackson missed Thursday's loss with an abdominal strain and is day to day.
Closer Jose Valverde (back strain) may also be unavailable.
- Justin Verlander
- Pittsburgh Pirates