After salvaging a miracle split Thursday in the doubleheader against the St. Louis Cardinals, the Tigers pulled within two games of the New York Yankees in the race for the final wild card spot. Detroit also trails the Baltimore Orioles by a half-game.
Since the top two teams in every division are guaranteed a playoff spot, the Oakland A’s and Houston Astros are currently in from the West, the Chicago White Sox and Minnesota Twins are in from the Central and the Tampa Bay Rays and Toronto Blue Jays are in from the East.
The Cleveland Indians are out of reach for the first of two wild card spots, leaving the Tigers, Yankees and Orioles as the top three contenders for the No. 8 spot.
Unfortunately for the Tigers, the Central has emerged as the strongest division in baseball. The White Sox, Twins and Indians are all top-five teams in the American League, and the Kansas City Royals are the best of the last-place teams.
That means a schedule that once figured to favor the Tigers is actually their greatest obstacle in the final two and a half weeks.
Not only do the Yankees have a two-game lead and a better all-around roster than the Tigers. They will also play eight of their remaining 17 games against teams with losing records. Their other nine games are against mid-level teams in the Marlins and Blue Jays.
The Tigers, on the other hand, have six games against the Royals and 11 against the aforementioned elite teams from the Central. All 11 of those games will be more difficult than the Yankees' toughest opponent, and even the Royals are better than the Red Sox.
So not only do the Tigers have to be two games better than the Yankees the rest of the way -- they have to be two games better while playing much, much better competition.
That starts this weekend, against a White Sox team that has embarrassed the Tigers this season.
Detroit is 1-6 against the White Sox, including six straight losses and an 0-4 record at Guaranteed Rate Field, where this weekend’s series will be played. The combined score from that four-game series in Chicago was 31-9. It looked like the White Sox were taking batting practice against the kids from their alternate training site.
Friday’s pitching matchup will be the second-most lopsided the Tigers face the rest of the season (with Shane Bieber vs. Casey Mize next week being the most lopsided). Mize will take on White Sox ace Lucas Giolito, who baffled the Tigers for seven shutout innings and 13 strikeouts during that four-game series.
Detroit has not fared well against aces this season, getting shut down by the likes of Giolito, Bieber, Sonny Gray, Trevor Bauer and Jack Flaherty. There’s no shame in struggling against the best pitchers in the world, but it means the Tigers have to have strong pitching of their own.
And that has not been the case at any point in this shortened season.
Mize has made four starts in his short MLB career, allowing 11 earned runs in 14.2 innings. He’s yet to last five innings as the efficiency that helped him rise to the top 10 in prospect rankings eludes him.
Look no further than the opposing dugout to squash any panic about Mize. Pitching prospects need some time to adjust to MLB. Giolito was the worst qualified starter in the majors two years ago. Now he’s among the very best.
Mize deserves plenty of time to find his footing, but if the Tigers hope to make the playoffs in 2020, he has to deliver a good start Friday night.
The last series in Chicago spiraled out of control for the Tigers when the White Sox jumped on Matthew Boyd in the first inning of game one. If Mize gets lit up Friday, the Tigers could be in for another long weekend.
The offense has done just enough to keep the Tigers in the race despite a nine-game losing streak and 3-7 record in their last 10 games. But those playoff hopes are dangling by a thread right now, and the schedule isn’t going to get any easier.
It’s a lot to ask of a rookie who hasn’t quite been able to get on track yet, but baseball isn’t fair, and the Tigers have put themselves in a tough spot.
Mize is expected to take the mound for a lot of very important games throughout his Tigers career. Friday night will be the first.