There's a simple thing the Tigers need in order to keep in the playoff race and extend their season: luck!* Just hoping things fall your way over the last three weeks of the season isn't enough, though; the Tigers are going to need to play better baseball than they have been as of late in order to stay in this thing and either overtake the Chicago White Sox in the AL Central, or take one of the two wild card spots. "Better baseball" is about as obvious a necessity as luck, though, so let's dive in to the specifics of what's been going wrong for Detroit lately.
First, Detroit needs to beat the White Sox. And not a little, either: a four-game set began against the division-leading Pale Hose on Monday, and Detroit dropped game one, moving them three games back in the AL Central. Rob Neyer wrote about the implications this would have prior to Monday's contest:
The math just isn't on the Tigers' side. The most likely outcome of this series is a split. The second-most likely outcome, because these games are in Chicago, is the White Sox taking three of four. And because each game in a series like this represents a two-game swing (if you think about it), the Tigers really can't lose three games, because if they lose three games they're down by four games with 19 to play, which is obviously big trouble.
Yesterday, the Tigers' odds of winning the Central -- the shortest route to October for Detroit -- via Baseball Prospectus were 37 percent. After Monday's loss, they've fallen to 28 percent, with a drop of 27 percent in the last seven days, in which they've gone 1-6. Overall in September, they're 3-6, not close to the 16-11 pace from August that was keeping them in it. There's only one real culprit for the recent stretch of ineptitude.
It's not the starting pitching. Tigers' starters have a combined 2.80 ERA, and have allowed just 3.2 runs per game, in their nine September contests, in which they've also averaged 6⅔ frames per start. Max Scherzer (16 innings, 18 strikeouts against one walk, two runs allowed) has led the charge this month, but Anibal Sanchez (13 IP, 8/1 K/BB, three runs) has also contributed. Justin Verlander, the last pitcher you would expect to fail Detroit, followed up a dominating start (eight innings, 11 strikeouts, one run against the White Sox) with a terrible outing against the Angels, in which he allowed six runs in six innings. Overall, though, the starting pitching is not to blame in this stretch.
The bullpen hasn't been quite as good, with relievers Octavio Dotel and Darin Downs taking two of the six losses of the month. Overall, though, they limited opponents to a 713 OPS in the last 10 days, worse than average, but not enough to sink the team's chances on their own.
No, the real problem in this month, the reason the Tigers are struggling to stay relevant at a time they need to capitalize, is the offense. Tigers batters have a combined .221/.295/.377 showing in September, with homers about the only thing going for them. Home runs are great, of course, as the cleanest way to score runs, but when you're also posting a sub-.300 on-base percentage, maybe those homers happen a little too cleanly. Have a look at the Tigers' batters by batting order in September:
The lead-off men are getting on base, and the very middle of the order is doing work, but there's little support coming from anywhere else besides the eighth slot. And they've been somewhat isolated, with two homers and five walks in September, but just three runs batted in, and no one hitting with any authority behind them. To put names to numbers, Austin Jackson has been getting on base at a .394 clip, while Prince Fielder, Miguel Cabrera, and even Delmon Young hit for power, but the rest of the lineup has been essentially useless: six of the Tigers with at least five plate appearances in September are sporting sub-500 OPS.
This is just a small sample, of course: the Tigers have hit for much of 2012, and rank third in the American League in OPS+. But this is the wrong time for the lineup to fail them, given Detroit is running out of season to make things right, and are currently facing the team they need to beat more than anyone else.
If the pitchers can keep up their recent run of success, and the lineup can get back to what they should be doing, then the Tigers should stick in this thing until the end, if not later. A few more ill-timed September nights like their recent ones, though, and it's going to be difficult to overcome their current deficit.