Twins-Tigers opener twice as big
Rain prompts doubleheader in AL Central showdown
DETROIT -- After a line of storms that stretched across Michigan washed out Monday's series opener, Detroit and Minnesota now have four games in three days to try to decide who has the upper hand in the American League Central.
Tuesday's day-night doubleheader isn't winner-take-all, but a sweep either way lets the winner take command. In the Tigers' case, it would leave them needing only one win Wednesday or Thursday to clinch their first division title since 1987. For the Twins, a sweep would leave the two teams tied with five to play.
A split would go in the Tigers' favor, though it leaves them needing another win Wednesday or Thursday to ensure they're still on top of the division by themselves entering the weekend. In that sense, the Tigers are happy to have their two best-performing starters down the stretch going Tuesday. They'll deal with the ramifications in their rotation later.
Rick Porcello, who goes in the 12:05 p.m. ET game, and Justin Verlander, who will start the 7:05 nightcap, have long been seen as a potential one-two punch for years to come in the Tigers' rotation. If they can both deliver Tuesday, they might well provide the long-awaited knockout punch to the Twins. The duo squares off against Nick Blackburn and Brian Duensing, respectively.
After a year of defying expectations and standards for his age, Porcello takes the mound in what might be the biggest game of the Tigers' season -- at least, for a few hours. It might also be his best case of avenging a loss. He lost a pitchers' duel against the Twins a week and a half ago despite a quality start. However, he isn't thinking of it as a revenge game.
"It's a big game," Porcello admitted, "but it's just another game. I'm trying to take that approach and stay even-keeled throughout the entire time."
That hasn't been a problem for him for much of the season. His teammates aren't expecting it to be an issue now, not after all the other key games in which he has pitched this year in his first experience above Class A ball.
"We've put him in every situation," Curtis Granderson said. "He started against the Yankees. He started against the Red Sox. He's thrown against Chicago here. He's thrown in big division matchups. Mentally, he's just been ready to go. I think that's the big thing, the fact that you've given him all the opportunities to do it from Day 1. There's no second-guessing him. There's no judgment side from the players' standpoint."
The same can be said of Blackburn, who is not unaccustomed to the situation he'll face when he takes the mound in Detroit on Tuesday afternoon.
Last year, Blackburn faced an even stiffer test when he was given the ball in game No. 163 against the White Sox. With a division title and a trip to the postseason on the line, he delivered a gem -- allowing just one run (via a Jim Thome homer) over 6 1/3 innings.
Sure, he and the Twins lost, 1-0, but the Twins' coaches have credited the outing with playing a huge part in Blackburn's development as a pitcher. Still, Blackburn is not going to be thinking about that memorable night when he opens the series in Detroit.
"That won't even enter my mind," Blackburn said Sunday. "I don't think my nerves will be a factor, and they shouldn't be. Maybe some of that has to do with pitching in that game last year. Maybe it doesn't. ... I still have to go out there and do my job. It's not going to be any different, and that's how I have to approach it."
While both pitchers have had a lot of success this season, both also have had to make adjustments as the league caught onto them. When hitters started sitting on Porcello's sinker and passing on his curveball, he dusted off his slider as a breaking pitch and became more of a power pitcher with four-seam fastballs to challenge hitters and set up the sinker.
In his last meeting with the Twins, a 3-0 loss on Sept. 18, he induced two dozen balls put in play over his six innings of three-run ball, scattering eight hits, but he also had nine swings and misses. The Twins were aggressive, and they had a Michael Cuddyer two-run homer and a Delmon Young RBI double to show for it.
"You look at some of the mistakes I made then and try to correct it," Porcello said. "That's the biggest thing. We're going to go in there with a game plan and see what happens. Obviously things could change throughout the course of a game, adjustments and whatnot. We know what we want to do, and we're going to go out there and try to do it. It's going to be a fun series."
While Porcello was learning to rely on his fastball, Blackburn was learning not to lean too heavily on his. After a stellar first half, Blackburn went 2-9 with a 7.36 ERA in his first 11 outings after the break. In his last two starts, however, Blackburn has posted a 1.35 ERA and picked up two consecutive wins while pitching into the seventh inning in both contests."Changing speeds and keeping hitters off-balance ... has been the theme with him all year," pitching coach Rick Anderson said of Blackburn's recent turnaround. "When he uses all his pitches, he's very successful. Three starts ago against the A's, he threw all fastballs and gave up six runs in three innings. He's got to use them all." Blackburn will be facing the Tigers for the third time this season, but has not faced them since a 6-2 complete-game victory on July 5. He's 1-1 with a 5.11 ERA in two starts against Detroit this year. "I feel like even if they do know what my intentions are and what my style of pitching is, if I go out there and make the good pitches, then they are going to get themselves out anyway," Blackburn said. "You could say a hitter has an advantage. You could say a pitcher has an advantage. It's all about execution at this point." In the second of the two contests on Tuesday, the Twins will turn to Duensing, a rookie left-hander. So if the Twins drop the opener, they'll be in desperate need of a win against Verlander in the nightcap. They toppled him a week and a half ago at Minnesota with help from a fly ball lost against the backdrop of the Metrodome roof and a shattered-bat bloop RBI double, but they won't have their home park for an advantage Tuesday.
Verlander is 8-2 with a 2.62 ERA at Comerica Park this year, holding opponents to a .216 batting average and a .622 OPS. One of those two losses, however, came against the Twins, who hit him for five runs on seven hits over six innings Aug. 8 in an 11-0 defeat.
Duensing has been a surprise boost to the Twins since joining the rotation in mid-August. He's 5-0 with a 1.88 ERA in seven starts since then, including 6 1/3 innings of four-hit, shutout ball in a 3-0 win over the Tigers on Sept. 18. He has tossed three scoreless outings of at least six innings in September. According to STATS, he's only the eighth rookie since 1954 to accomplish that feat in September, and no rookie has had four such outings in the past 55 years.
But Duensing is not focused on his individual stats but rather on what a win with him on the mound would mean for the Twins.
"This is what you dream of, to at least have the opportunity to help out your team in this kind of game," Duensing said. "It's a big situation. The crowds are going to be into it and everybody is paying attention. It's a lot of fun.
"We know it's crunch time for us. We know what's at stake, but we're going to have a good time as much as we can and see what happens."