Ten key questions facing the Detroit Tigers as they head down the stretch of the 2014 season:
1. Will the Kansas City Royals keep stumbling when they play the Tigers in Missouri? Errors and bad base running — and a notable lack of power hitting — have plagued Kansas City against Detroit this season. In the three-game series at Comerica Park last week, the Royals gift-wrapped several key runs and ran themselves out of a game-ending rally. Kansas City is feeling the pressure of a rare pennant race — and if they continue to choke against the Tigers, Detroit should be home free.
2. Can Kyle Lobstein continue to fool major league batters? The unheralded minor leaguer has filled the hole in the No. 5 rotation spot with four solid outings in which he has kept his ERA under 3.00. He hasn’t gone deep into games, but he’s given the Tigers some solid starts. Can he give them two or three more?
3. Will Joe Nathan somehow navigate his way through his closer assignments despite his diminished abilities? Nathan has managed to avoid more disasters in recent weeks (by the skin of his teeth on Sunday when he was obviously out of gas), but it’s clear he really hasn’t regained the form that made him a dependable closer for most of his career. He still looks shaky and very hittable, but his experience as a veteran closer has helped him right the ship. Will it last?
4. Will Joakim Soria, Anibal Sanchez, and Jim Johnson be any help at all? Soria and Sanchez are at different points in their recovery from injuries: Soria is already back in action and should be able to regain his form — he could help solidify the bullpen. Theoretically, so could Johnson, but not much should be expected from him. But both of them are proven former closers. Sanchez is farther away, but he could really help in the playoffs if he can throw even 60-70 pitches a game.
5. Can Justin Verlander piece together a few more wins? JV is determined, and he’s been trying all season to overcome his drop in velocity and reinvent himself as a star pitcher. He must prevent the big innings that have plagued him most of the season and give his team a chance to win games in his remaining starts.
6. Will Miggy be able to limp to the finish? The MVP has been the club’s Most Vulnerable Player this year. It’s painful to watch him try to run on a bad ankle and swing the bat despite his weakened core. But Brad Ausmus has nursed him along by letting him DH when needed (unlike last year, when Jim Leyland stubbornly refused to rest him). Ausmus is also pinch running for Miggy in late innings of close games, which Leyland also refused to do. Cross your fingers that Cabrera can get out of bed every morning and be on the field for every game—no doubt he is determined to do so. So far in September he’s stepped up, hitting his first homers in nearly a month.
7. Will Brad Ausmus make more use of his September call-ups and will one of them provide an unlikely lift? Memorable Septembers for pennant contenders sometimes include improbable contributions from unlikely sources (remember Avisail Garcia two years ago?) I’m imagining a key clutch pinch-hit from Steven Moya.
8. Can the Tigers beat Oakland in a one-game playoff if they slip to the wild-card slot? It’s certainly possible — but they’ll have to use David Price or Max Scherzer and manage to finish the game and hold a lead. And they might have to face Jon Lester, one of the game’s most clutch post-season performers. But the Tigers can handle lefties.
9. Can the Tigers beat Seattle in a one-game playoff? Not likely if they have to face Felix Hernandez, the best pitcher in the American League. Chances are slim, so Detroit should be rooting for their favorite fall opponent, the A’s. Though with their slide it’s possible that Oakland could fall out of the postseason picture completely, which seems amazing.
10. Can the Tigers handle the Orioles in an ALDS? If the answers to most of the first seven questions are yes, Detroit can win the division and avoid playing the A’s or the Mariners in a one-game playoff. If they do, they should be able to handle Baltimore, who they’ll likely face in the ALDS (assuming the Angels can hold onto their league-best record, which would guarantee them a spot against the wild-card winner). The Orioles don’t have an ace starting pitcher. They do have a potent offense full of players having career years (like last year’s Red Sox). Watch out for the magic, but going through Baltimore sure would be an easier path than a one-game playoff followed by a series against the powerful Halos.