DETROIT — The Tigers made it clear coming out of Spring Training that they have their eyes on the White Sox — not because of the rivalry that seemed to grow in the final days of last season, but because Chicago holds the division title that Detroit is trying to grab.
Three games and two Tigers losses later, including Sunday’s 9-1 defeat, Detroit isn’t going to make too much out of a season-opening series after a shortened Spring Training. At the same time, the Tigers have a better idea of where they need to progress if they’re going to close the gap.
“When you play a game, you know what you have to do, you know where you have to get better, and we go from there,” Jeimer Candelario said. “We know what we have to do to beat them, and we’re going to do it.”
The Tigers led once all series, when Javier Báez hit his single off the right-field wall upon replay review to win on Opening Day. Sunday’s defeat was as lopsided as the score would indicate, with the Tigers going hitless from the third inning on. Five White Sox pitchers combined to retire 22 of Detroit’s final 24 batters, the two exceptions being walks.
It’s far from a disaster, and the quirks of the schedule mean it might not even be much of a statement. Both teams could look different by the time they meet again, June 13-15, at Comerica Park.
As catcher Tucker Barnhart put it, “It’s the first three games of the year.”
Still, here are three key takeaways from the series that could be points going forward:
1. Spring Training only translates so much, pitching included
Those who remember the Tigers from the 2000s might recall the annual Spring Training theme of Jeremy Bonderman working on a changeup. Not that Casey Mize’s splitter or Tarik Skubal’s changeup falls in that category, but this weekend was a reminder that pitches that work against hitters in Spring Training can still need some more polish to work when the games count.
Mize, who worked on getting his splitter back to being a quality pitch in Spring Training, threw nine splitters out of his 81 pitches in his loss Saturday. Three of them went to Yasmani Grandal in a first-inning strikeout, but he didn’t get much else out of it, partly because he wasn’t in many leverage counts, where he likes to use it.
Skubal had success with his changeup in his second inning Sunday, spotting back-to-back pitches to strike out Josh Harrison before using it to set up fastballs striking out Reese McGuire and Danny Mendick. Overall, however, it wasn’t as good as he would’ve liked after honing it in Spring Training.
“I just think against a right-handed-dominant lineup, it’s going to play really well, just to let the fastball play up,” Skubal said. “When I did throw it where I wanted to, I got a lot of good results. … I just didn’t consistently command it.”
2. White Sox hitters were patient
Though Tigers pitchers had a 5.37 ERA against Chicago last year, they were able to get strikeouts, including 23 from Skubal over three meetings, and 16 strikeouts in as many innings from Mize. Detroit’s starters had a tougher time finishing off White Sox hitters this series, with Skubal, Mize and Eduardo Rodriguez combining for seven strikeouts over 13 innings.
They allowed just three walks, but long at-bats and foul balls kept at-bats alive for mistakes. Moreover, Tigers hitters struggled to get into the aforementioned leverage counts Mize talks about.
“It’s hard for me to speak about the past, but I would say that they were maybe a tick more patient than we thought they would be,” Barnhart said. “But it’s a game of adjustments, and they just were able to make more adjustments than we did.”
3. Tigers struggled against White Sox starters
On the flip side, Detroit scored two runs on five hits in 13 innings with 17 strikeouts against White Sox starters Lucas Giolito, Dylan Cease and Michael Kopech. Cease’s success against Detroit has been well-documented; his five-plus innings of one-run ball with eight strikeouts Saturday improved him to 9-0 with a 2.08 ERA in his career against Detroit. Giolito has a mixed history against the Tigers but held them to a Jonathan Schoop double over four innings with six strikeouts on Opening Day.
Kopech, a well-touted prospect for a few years, beas the Tigers Sunday with largely a fastball-slider combination — somewhat similar to Cease — allowing a run on two hits and two walks over four innings with three strikeouts. He retired his last seven batters after Detroit’s lone rally in the second inning, and garnered outs in the air.
In the first two games, the Tigers were more productive against Chicago’s bullpen. On Sunday, they went hitless against White Sox relievers.
“We were behind from the get-go, and I think our at-bats, quite honestly, just got a little bit rushed as the game went along,” manager A.J. Hinch said. “They pitched with a little more aggressiveness than we were ready for. When he fell behind, it looked like our at-bats got over a little quicker.”
Newly acquired slugger Austin Meadows had by far the best at-bats of the group, which is a good sign. But the Tigers need more balance and more production early.