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Tigers Series Preview: First place again on the line

I have a feeling we're going to have a lot of series like this

John Rieger-USA TODAY Sports

The Royals and Tigers face off for the second time this year with first place on the line, and with the Indians and White Sox off to terrible starts, this is starting to look like a two-team race for the division (unless the Twins are for real!) The two teams split a four-game series in Kansas City last week, but the Tigers had the big advantage last year, taking 13 of 19 from the Royals.

The Tigers got off to a hot 11-2 start, but have dropped 9 of 16 since then, including a tough 7-6 loss Wednesday night to Chicago. In that game, the bullpen coughed up four runs in the eighth to cost Detroit the victory, a possible foreshadowing of bullpen issues to come for the Tigers. As a team, they have a 4.00 ERA in the pen, fourth-worst in the league. They are the second-worst at striking hitters out at a paltry 6.3 per nine innings. Former Royals All-Star Joakim Soria is a perfect 10-for-10 in save opportunities with just five hits allowed in 13 innings with a 1.38 ERA. But set-up men Joba Chamberlain and Al Alburquerque have struggled this year, and the team has had to use unproven fringe Major Leaguers like Angel Nesbitt and Alex Wilson.

The Tigers were second in the league in runs scored last year, but their hot start this year hasn't necessarily been due to offense. They are just seventh in the league in runs per game, barely above league average. The Tigers have scored two runs or less in twelve of their games this year, while the Royals have been held to that number just five times. This all comes despite the Tigers leading the league in BABIP at .332. The Tigers are just tenth in the league in home runs, with just three more dingers than the Royals.

Miguel Cabrera has been his usual awesome Cabrera self lately, but aging designated hitter Victor Martinez has struggled to get much going this year. The center field platoon of Anthony Gose and Rajai Davis has been quite effective this year, and the two have combined for 12 steals, a big reason why the Tigers are second in the league in stolen bases. Right fielder J.D. Martinez is mired in an awful slump, going 0-for his last-23, with 16 strikeouts over that stretch. The Tigers have significantly upgraded their defense, and are fourth in the league in Defensive Runs Saved at +7.

Tigers pitchers play right into the Royals hitters hands by not missing many bats. The Tigers have the second-worst strikeout rate in the league behind the "pitch to contact" Twins. Ace David Price has seen his strikeouts fall dramatically and has had his lowest strikeout rate since his rookie season. Right-hander Shane Greene, who had a solid rookie season for the Yankees before being dealt this off-season, has been rocked his last three starts, with 20 runs allowed in just 11 innings. Anibal Sanchez has traditionally dominated the Royals with a career 1.40 ERA in eight starts against Kansas City, but the Royals were able to scratch out three runs against him in seven innings last weekend.

Note the nationally televised games on Saturday and Sunday.

The Tigers and Royals have both cooled off since their hot start, but still manage to have two of the three best records in the league (along with the surprising Astros). The Tigers have regressed with a bit more of a thud the last week, with their run differential now down to +9. The Tigers are still the team to beat in the Central however, until the Royals knock them off, and beating the Tigers in Detroit would go a long way towards validating the Royals' hot start to begin the season.