After just two series, the Detroit Tigers have matched their total number of victories against the Cleveland Indians that they accumulated in all of 2016.
Cleveland was one of the chief barriers that prevented Detroit from October baseball. In the midst of a 162 game season, it is easy to forget that in-division games, in a sense, count as two.
The Indians beat the Tigers 14 of 18 games in 2016. Detroit’s first victory against the Tribe did not come until July. Every one of those 14 games simultaneously moved Detroit down and Cleveland up in the AL Central.
With Central opponents regularly finding their way on Detroit’s schedule, it is imperative that the Tigers at least hold their ground against such teams. Losing 14 out of 18 is not going to cut—especially against the frontrunner.
Cleveland beat out Detroit for the Central by 8.0 games in 2016. Detroit also barely missed the wild card, only falling 2.5 games behind the Toronto Blue Jays and Baltimore Orioles. Putting so much as semi-respectable numbers against the Tribe could have placed Detroit in the post-season.
So what is one of the biggest keys for a better 2017? Beat Cleveland. It’s as simple as that.
So far, Detroit has gone 4-2 against the Tribe, winning a couple of three-game series, one of which had a fourth game that was postponed due to rain. The reason for this success? They have played some of their best baseball in these two series.
The Tigers were red hot from the plate early this season. Last year, that success would have likely stalled heading into the Cleveland series. Not this time. Frustrated from a year of evicting 14 games against a single opponent, the Tigers’ bats came through, scoring 17 runs over three games.
This charge was led by none other than Miguel Cabrera, who finished the series with five RBI’s and a home run. Cabrera is a powerful weapon against the Tribe partly due his success against Cleveland ace Corey Kluber. Few can claim triumph against a pitcher of Kluber’s level. But Miggy has gone 23-52 against the righty—good for a .442 record along with six career home runs.
In the most recent series against Cleveland, Detroit has received help from an unlikely source—the bullpen. Scrutinized for having the worst bullpen in the MLB, Tigers relievers somehow put it together in time to face the Indians.
Over the last three games against the Tribe, Detroit’s bullpen did not allow a single run. This is an unprecedented accomplishment for a Tigers’ bullpen whose ERA has flown like a rocket since the beginning of the season.
A more subtle part of Tigers success against the Indians is behind the play of Victor Martinez. V-Mart hasn’t had the best start to the year. Since he’s struggling to slug the ball, Martinez has looked to more creative ways to getting on base—beating the shift.
Cleveland pressed Martinez by shifting the third baseman over in between the first and second basemen. This is a common practice against pull hitters. But Martinez had a trick up his sleeve. For the first time in his career, Martinez saw the empty third baseline and said to himself, “why not?”
The crowd erupted in a mix of laughter and cheering as V-Mart bunted the ball down the baseline and collected his first career bunt for a base hit. Later, Martinez hit a ground ball in the same direction, also for an easy single.
Only a fraction of the baseball season has been played. Anything can happen, and just about everything will happen. There is still plenty on the horizon for these two ball clubs.
Nevertheless, it must be nice for the Tigers to see early improvement against a pivotal opponent. No Tigers’ fan wants a repeat of what happened last year.