Critical AL Central stretch awaits Tigers after hot start

April 10th, 2024

PITTSBURGH -- The trip from the Tigers’ Spring Training home in Lakeland, Fla., to Fort Myers is one of the longest in the Grapefruit League, well over two hours and close to three in traffic. It’s sometimes handed to younger, less tenured players in camp while veterans look to stay back and hit in the cages or play in Minor League games.

’s less tenured days ended with his 20-homer season last year. His hamstring strain early in Spring Training provided extra reason to stay back. But when the Tigers went to Fort Myers to face the Twins in the final days of camp, Carpenter wanted to go. It was a free look at the defending AL Central champions, particularly with pitchers Louie Varland and Steven Okert projected for Minnesota’s Opening Day roster. It was worth the drive to get an in-person look.

“A bunch of us actually wanted to go down there to see some of their guys,” Carpenter said.

The Tigers raked in that game. More importantly, they studied. Three weeks later, as they readied to return home after a series split against the Pirates and a 7-4 start to the season, they’re ready for a long look.

Detroit and Minnesota are scheduled for seven meetings over an 11-day stretch, beginning with Thursday’s matinee to open a four-game series at Comerica Park. That’s more than half of their 13 matchups for the season in a week and a half; their other six games are scheduled for July.

Even with both teams looking up at the red-hot Guardians in the standings, it’s a big stretch for Detroit against the club perceived by many as the team to beat in the division going into the season. But even for a young team trying to take the next step to contention, it’s an angle it doesn't want to overplay.

“Every game’s important, especially against a good team in the division,” Spencer Torkelson said. “But we’re not really looking at it like that. I mean, there’s always an emphasis to win every single day. I feel like if we just maintain that, we’ll be all right.”

There’s sound reasoning for this. Detroit went 35-17 against division opponents last year, tied with the 104-win Braves for baseball’s best in-division mark. It won every season series against every division rival for the first time since 2011, the first of four consecutive AL Central titles. The Tigers went 8-5 against the Twins last year.

In previous seasons, that would’ve been a bigger advantage. But with last year’s change to balance the schedule a bit and reduce the number of in-division matchups from six series to four per rival, it’s a smaller portion of the season. Detroit’s downfall last year was a 7-25 record against the AL East, a 15-17 record against the AL West and a 21-25 Interleague mark.

For that reason, the Tigers say, every game matters.

“I think the focus is more just winning,” said Tarik Skubal, who’s set to start Thursday opposite Twins ace Pablo López. “The schedule’s a little different now. It’s not like you play in division a ton. I’m not going to say it doesn’t matter, because it does matter how you play your division. But I think with the new schedule, winning is just very important no matter who you’re playing.”

Thus, the ideal scenario is simple.

“Let’s keep winning against division teams,” Skubal continued, “but let’s handle the other teams better.”

The Tigers believe they set up well against their division rivals, from a balanced lineup that can play platoon advantages to a versatile bullpen in which several relievers can fill a wide range of roles on a given night. They’re already 3-0 in the AL Central thanks to their series-opening sweep of the White Sox in Chicago.

“It carries over,” Torkelson said of last year’s success, “because I feel like we just believe that we match up better against them. I think that just gives this team self-belief that we’re a better team.”

That includes confidence against the Twins. Both teams have fairly similar rosters to last year, but the Tigers signed former Twins starter Kenta Maeda as a free agent in the offseason. Despite the success last season, the Tigers still believe Minnesota is the team to beat.

“Definitely,” said Carpenter, who could see Varland again in Sunday’s series finale. “I think they’ve earned the right to be on the perch. We’re trying to knock them off now.”