Lutz Blog

Bob Lutz: Royals have a foot on Tigers’ throats

To borrow the most over-used cliche in the history of sports and cliches, the Detroit Tigers’ backs are against the wall.

They trail Kansas City by two games – three in the loss column - as a three-game series between the two American League Central contenders begins tonight at Comerica Park in Detroit.

The Royals are coming off a series-winning performance at Yankee Stadium, where they won two out of three against New York. KC is 41-30 on the road this season, one of the big reasons why it looks like this team is destined for the playoffs.

Kansas City isn’t flinching in the heat of this race; the team’s performance in New York is proof of that. After losing two at home against Cleveland – and then falling behind late in a game that will be finished in Cleveland in a couple of weeks – it looked like Kansas City might be in trouble.

But the Royals proceeded to sweep the lowly Texas Rangers, then took Yankee Stadium by storm. Remember, the only game Kansas City lost to the Yankees was the one in which left-hander Danny Duffy had to leave with shoulder discomfort after making just one pitch.

The Tigers have been a big mystery this season, one in which most of the experts expected them to run away with the AL Central.

Detroit is batting .276 as a team, far and away the best in baseball. The Tigers are second to the Los Angeles Angels in runs scored and have the best OPS (.758) in the game by a fair margin over the Angels.

Detroit’s rotation of Justin Verlander, Max Scherzer, Rick Porcello and David Price – with youngster Kyle Lobstein filling in for the injured Anibal Sanchez – sets fire to the paper it’s printed on.

But that rotation has been just good, not great.

Verlander, who won the American League MVP award in 2011 when he was 24-5 with a 2.40 ERA, is paying the piper for his exorbitant career workload.

Verlander, 31, is on pace to top 200 innings for the eighth straight season. From 2009 through 2013, he pitched 240, 224.1, 251, 238.1 and 218.1 innings, as well as another 71.2 innings in postseason play. That’s an average of nearly 250 innings per season. Is it any wonder Verlander is 12-12 with a 4.80 ERA this season?

Scherzer and Porcello have been outstanding, combing to go 30-15 with ERAs in the low 3s. And Sanchez was good before he went out with an injury.

The real problem in Detroit has been the bullpen.

It was a problem last season, too, so the Tigers acquired reliever Joe Nathan, a proven closer with lots of postseason experience.

But the 39-year-old Nathan has been sluggish all season and has a 5.04 ERA to prove it. He does have 29 saves, but has had to work hard for them as his dominant stuff has disappeared.

The Tigers rely too much on their starters because of their leaky bullpen. And that’s made matters worse for the rotation, where innings have been piling up.

Detroit’s bullpen ERA is 4.22, compared to 3.42 for Kansas City. The Royals have lock down games with the firepower of Kelvin Herrera, Wade Davis and Greg Holland while the Tigers have trouble closing out games.

The Royals have an edge in starting pitching, too, with a 3.52 ERA compared to Detroit’s 3.92.

Price hasn’t been as dominant as he was in June and July for Tampa Bay, when he was 7-4 with a 1.98 ERA. Over 11 starts, Price allowed just 67 hits and struck out 99 in 86.1 innings.

Since coming to Detroit at the trade deadline in a deal that sent left-hander Drew Smyly to Tampa, Price is 1-2 with a 4.41 ERA.

Some time trade-deadline deals work out great, sometimes they don’t. Smyly, on the other hand, is 3-1 with a 1.70 ERA in seven starts for the Rays.

Gotta love baseball.

The Royals’ pitchers, meanwhile, have been a bunch of steady-Eddies.

It’s Jeremy Guthrie against Verlander tonight; Jason Vargas against Scherzer on Tuesday and James Shields opposing Porcello on Wednesday.

Tonight’s game is important. If the Royals can pounce on Verlander early, the Tigers have to start questioning themselves. Guthrie has been the most inconsistent starter for Kansas City, but that doesn’t mean he isn’t capable.

Vargas and Shields have been lights out of late, so the series sets up well. We’ll see starting in a couple of hours. I know how amped up Royals fans must be.