Three keys for Tigers vs. A's in AL Division Series
DETROIT -- The Tigers go into their American League Division Series rematch with the A's knowing they can take a must-win game in Oakland. Justin Verlander took care of that last year. They know they can win regular games in Oakland, too, having taken two of three at the Coliseum on their only West Coast trip of the season in April.
Their most recent matchup in late August at Comerica Park, however, threw all that history out of whack. The A's came within an inning of a four-game sweep. They also gave the Tigers a lot to think about if they met up in October.
Tigers manager Jim Leyland didn't forget.
"We know Oakland real good," Leyland said. "They beat up on us real good at Comerica Park last time we saw them, so we're obviously going to have to do a better job of making good pitches. They hit some good pitches and they hit some real bad pitches, and we're going to have to do a better job of pitching them."
There's a lot more the Tigers have to do to get by the A's once more. The A's earned home-field advantage in this series for a reason, just as the Tigers fell from a brief dance with the league's best record in early September to the third seed.
Here's a look at three keys for the Tigers to get their momentum back and start another run toward the World Series:
1. Lean on the rotation
This seems obvious. Detroit, after all, boasted the best statistics of any AL rotation in nearly every major category, including three 200-strikeout pitchers on the same team for just the third time in history, the first since the 1969 Astros. However, it's more complex than that.
The A's pounded Tigers pitchers so hard at Comerica Park in August that Leyland wondered aloud once the series was over whether Oakland hitters were onto their signs. All four Tigers starters in that series were knocked out after five innings, three of them having thrown more than 100 pitches. A's hitters put the ball in air and pounded Detroit starters with extra-base hits. It was an aggressive approach from Oakland, and it worked.
The Tigers don't just need effective starts from their vaunted rotation. With Bruce Rondon and Phil Coke both dealing with arm issues, Detroit appears unlikely to have the depth in middle and setup relief that it would've hoped for. Both Al Alburquerque and Drew Smyly, the relievers expected to pick up the extra workload, have to be watched carefully for overuse.
2. Don't let Jed Lowrie become a Tiger killer
Sure, Coco Crisp has the potential to torment the Tigers from the leadoff spot, and Josh Donaldson is an AL Most Valuable Player Award candidate for a reason. The real damage Oakland did in Detroit in August, however, came from Lowrie, the former utility infielder who has taken hold of the third spot in Oakland's lineup. He went 8-for-17 at Comerica Park, with a home run, four doubles, five runs scored and six RBIs. He then batted .283 with 17 RBIs in September.
Part of Lowrie's success comes from Crisp and Donaldson getting on base ahead of him. Hold down those two and Lowrie's RBI chances dry up. But even with those two at the top, no other AL playoff team gave up anywhere near the damage to Lowrie that Detroit did. He's a .350 career hitter against current Tigers pitchers, and nine of his 21 hits have gone for extra bases.
3. Get a win early on the road
The Tigers have had an abundance of success in the postseason without home-field advantage in any series the last couple of years, but for the most start, it starts with stealing a win on the road early. When they beat Oakland in five games in last year's ALDS, they actually hosted the first two games before going on the road for the final three. This year, the Division Series is back to a 2-2-1, so losing the first two on the road would put them on the brink of elimination by the time they return to Detroit.
Despite the season-ending series sweep in Miami, Detroit is a much better team on the road than it was last year, with a pitching staff that boasts two frontline starters who were statistically better on the road than at home this season in Max Scherzer and Verlander. They appear likely to start the first two games; one of them needs to step up and take some pressure off the home end of the series.