Off to a 4-1 start, the Detroit Tigers should feel a sense of urgency this season after the Cleveland Indians and Kansas City Royals proved in 2013 that they were quickly closing the gap in the AL Central.
But if the Tigers can at least partially fill the gaping hole in the middle of their lineup that the trade of slugger Prince Fielder created, their starting rotation is still good enough to carry the team into the postseason for a fourth consecutive season and into the World Series for the third time in nine years.
If their talent on paper can translate to wins on the field and they can overcome an extended absence of ace Clayton Kershaw, who is currently on the disabled list with a back injury, then we can look forward to a star-studded World Series matchup between the Dodgers and Tigers.
Those two teams will get an early look at each other when the Tigers visit Dodger Stadium for a two-game series starting Tuesday at 10:10 p.m. ET.
While the team's respective aces, Kershaw and Justin Verlander, won't make an appearance—Kershaw has 13 shutout innings versus the Tigers in his career; Verlander has never faced the Dodgers—the four starting pitchers scheduled to pitch are no slouches.
Missing Verlander, the 2011 AL Cy Young Award winner, would normally be a relief for opponents. But with 2013 AL Cy Young Award winner Max Scherzer—who tossed eight shutout innings in his first start of this season—on the hill in Game 1 and Anibal Sanchez, the reigning AL ERA champ, scheduled to take the mound on Wednesday, the Dodgers are not getting much of a break.
Their lineup won't be at full health, either, with catcher A.J. Ellis (arthroscopic knee surgery) expected to be placed on the disabled list prior to Tuesday's game and Yasiel Puig at less than 100 percent health with a strained thumb ligament.
Regardless, a Puig-less lineup might have a better shot against the Tigers' duo. They are extremely tough against right-handed hitters, who posted a .536 OPS against Sanchez and .494 OPS versus Scherzer in 2013. Right-handed batters are 2-for-19 against the pair thus far in 2014.
In addition, left-handed hitter Andre Ethier, who would likely take Puig's spot in the lineup, has had success against Scherzer over his career (6-for-15, HR, 2B).
If manager Don Mattingly really wants Puig, who is 6-for-24 with a homer and a double to start the season, in the lineup for at least one of the games, he could opt to sit Matt Kemp against Scherzer after checking out his career numbers against him. Kemp is 0-for-16 against Scherzer with no walks and four strikeouts.
There's no doubt that Scherzer and Sanchez are tough, helping to form one of, if not, the best top of the rotations in the game. But, after the Dodgers' weekend series against the San Francisco Giants, the heart of the Dodgers' lineup is shaping up to be just as impressive.
Despite losing two out of three games to the rival Giants, the Dodgers have plenty to be excited about moving forward.
Kemp, who missed most of 2013 and is coming back from ankle and shoulder surgeries, looked as healthy as he's been in a long time with a two-homer game on Sunday. Hanley Ramirez, who played in only 86 games last season because of multiple injuries, matched Kemp with two homers on Sunday and went 6-for-11 in the series with two doubles to go along with the home runs. Adrian Gonzalez also had two doubles and a homer.
A healthy Kemp and Ramirez and a productive Gonzalez hitting in between them could give the Dodgers the most dangerous "heart of the order" in all of baseball.
As Dylan Hernandez of the Los Angeles Times noted, the Dodgers have never been able to pencil in a healthy Kemp and Ramirez in the same lineup.
"Hanley is on a different level," Dodgers pitcher Zack Greinke said. "If Matt's like that, like he was today, you don't want to face this lineup."
Of the potential middle-of-the-order trio, Gonzalez added, "That's a pretty good three-four-five."
The Tigers lineup as a whole, though, has been much more impressive. Second in baseball with an .825 OPS through five games, this group is quickly easing concerns over how to replace Fielder's production behind Miguel Cabrera.
Leading the charge is Austin Jackson, who has moved down from the leadoff spot to protecting Cabrera and cleanup man Victor Martinez in the No. 5 hole. The 27-year-old center fielder is 7-for-20 with two doubles and a triple. Rookie third baseman Nick Castellanos (5-for-13, 2B) is also off to a strong start, as is veteran shortstop Alex Gonzalez (4-for-11, 3B) and outfielder Rajai Davis (3-for-9, HR, SB).
Bottom-of-the-order production could be key to the Tigers' season, as well as in this series against the Dodgers. Only Martinez (9-for-26, HR, 2 2B) has success against Dan Haren, who will start Tuesday's game.
In game two, they'll face either Josh Beckett, who might be activated from the disabled list, or lefty Hyun-jin Ryu, who would be making his fourth start of the season.
The Tigers were shut down by the lone lefty starter they faced so far this season. Kansas City Royals pitcher Jason Vargas allowed only one earned run against them in seven innings on five hits, one walk and six strikeouts.
While the most interesting storylines involve the stars—Kemp and Ramirez versus Scherzer and Sanchez—each team's ability to get the ball to their respective closer could be the difference in these games.
Dodgers setup man Brian Wilson is on the disabled list with nerve irritation in his elbow, while the guy who was supposed to be the Tigers' primary setup man, Bruce Rondon, is out for the season after undergoing Tommy John surgery. The next most viable candidate, free-agent acquisition Joba Chamberlain, allowed two runs and four hits in his lone inning of work this season.
J.P. Howell, Chris Perez and Chris Withrow have more than made up for Wilson's absence, however, accounting for a combined 12.1 scoreless innings.
On the other hand, the Tigers have yet to find that reliever who will step up and take hold of a late-inning setup role. Al Alburquerque and Phil Coke have each had shaky outings, and closer Joe Nathan has struggled, allowing runs in each of his last two appearances and blowing a save.
If the baseball world is to be treated to a first-ever World Series matchup between the Dodgers and Tigers, the Dodgers will need their stars to stay healthy. The Tigers will need to strengthen their bullpen and continue to get production from the bottom of the order.
But most teams, if not every single one of them, have questions to answer at this point of the season. It's quite possible that the two most talented teams in baseball will take the field at Chavez Ravine on Tuesday and Wednesday before continuing on journeys that could lead them back to the same place as World Series opponents in late October.
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