Detroit Tigers (8-19) vs. Oakland Athletics (10-18)
When: 7:10 p.m. Monday.
Where: Comerica Park in Detroit.
TV: Bally Sports Detroit.
Radio: WXYT-FM (97.1) (Tigers radio affiliates).
Weather forecast: Clear skies, low-60s.
Probable pitchers: Tigers RHP Michael Pineda (1-1, 3.77 ERA) vs. Athletics RHP Paul Blackburn (3-0, 2.22 ERA).
LF Robbie Grossman
SS Javier Bàez
DH Miguel Cabrera
RF Austin Meadows
2B Jonathan Schoop
3B Jeimer Candelario
1B Spencer Torkelson
C Tucker Barnhart
CF Derek Hill
P Michael Pineda
Game notes: The forgotten things about MLB “fire sales,” in which teams opt to “jumpstart the rebuild” (or “save money,” depending on your position and/or honesty relative to the team), is that sometimes they do result in hidden gems getting a chance to sparkle. That appears to be the case for the A’s with starter Paul Blackburn, who entered this season with a career 5.74 ERA, 77 strikeouts and 38 walks over 138 innings (27 starts). (Those numbers might overstate his performance from 2018-21; they were boosted by a decent rookie season in 2017, in which he posted a strikeout-light 3.22 ERA over 58⅔ innings.)
But he was a former first-round pick (barely, going at No. 56 overall in 2012), and those fellas tend to get a few extra shots, even if they’re on their fourth organization, like Blackburn was. And the A’s certainly had holes in their rotation to fill, after trading Chris Bassitt (to the Mets) and Sean Manaea (to the Padres) in the offseason. And over his first five starts of 2022, accounting for 24⅓ innings, he has been the Athletics’ best starter, with a 0.945 WHIP and a 2.22 ERA that’s actually worse than his peripheral stats — 23 strikeouts, three walks, one home run — predict. (Baseball-Reference puts his Fielding Independent Pitching at 2.09, which would rank third in the American League if he didn’t fall just short of the innings needed to qualify.)
In short, the 28-year-old is exactly what the Tigers do not need to face after losing five straight games, including a series finale in Houston in which they had one hit: A hot hand who doesn’t give up home runs. Just three Tigers have faced him, with one plate appearance each for Willi Castro and Victor Reyes and five for Jonathan Schoop, back in 2017 when Blackburn was still a prospect and Schoop was a Baltimore Oriole. Castro and Schoop were successful, at least, with each picking up a double.
That’s good news for Schoop, who appears to be surfacing from his season-opening skid, hitting the ball hard and registering the Tigers’ lone hit Sunday. Facing Blackburn might be good news for the rest of the Tigers, too, as the pixie dust he was using to get more swings and misses — namely a curveball that added five inches of horizontal run from last year — could be running low.
“It’s a pitch that has come a long way for me,” Blackburn said of his curveball, talking to MLB.com after a gem against the Giants (including a “tip your cap” from S.F. manager and ex-Tiger Gabe Kapler) on April 27. “I’ve gained a lot of confidence in it over the course of this year. It gives (hitters) a different look. Especially with how much I’ve been pitching up, I feel like it plays off my fastball.”
After four starts of five innings each to open the season, he lasted just 4⅓ innings on May 3 against the Rays while allowing three runs. Still, he picked up 10 swing-and-misses in that short outing, which doesn’t bode well for a Tigers offense that appears to be pressing.
The Tigers will send Michael Pineda to the mound; the big righty threw a gem in his Tigers debut on April 21, but has been a little more hittable over his past two starts, with 11 hits, two walks and six strikeouts in 9⅓ innings combined against the Twins and Pirates. The A’s fire sale stripped their offense, too, with The Two Matts heading to separate contenders. (Chapman, the third baseman, to the Blue Jays, and Olson, the first baseman, to the Braves — though if you confused them before the season, well, that’s understandable.) That means Pineda will have a bit of the unknown to his advantage as well, as just five Oakland batters have faced him. Then again, one of those, Elvis Andrus, has done quite well, going 5-for-15 with a homer and three RBIs.
Yes, Andrus, at age 33, still has a spot in the rebuilding A’s lineup; of the 12 players who’ve appeared in at least 10 games for Oakland this season, 11 are 25 or older. (Maybe available veterans are the new market inefficiency?) The lone exception is probably the biggest reason for A’s fans to be hopeful this year: Center fielder Cristian Pache, who was acquired in the Olson deal, doesn’t turn 24 until November.
He was the No. 12 prospect in baseball entering 2021 before a .358 OPS (not a typo) in 22 games with the Braves last season dulled the hype a bit. This season hasn’t been much better, with Pache posting a .478 OPS, 22 strikeouts and two walks in 87 plate appearances. But his defense will keep him in the lineup — just watch this running (not diving) robbery of a Gilberto Celestino drive in Minneapolis on Friday night — and that should allow time to grow at the plate.
And sometimes, a little extra time is all that’s needed. Just ask Paul Blackburn.
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