Robbie Ray makes crucial MLB debut against Houston

Ray owns 1.53 ERA with Toledo Mudhens

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DETROIT - The Detroit Tigers (18-9) put a six-game winning streak on the line Tuesday night as Robbie Ray makes his first Major League start against the Houston Astros (10-22).

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Ray was a major piece in the offseason trade that sent Doug Fister to the Washington Nationals and allowed Drew Smyly to join the starting rotation.

Though the trade was largely unpopular with Tigers fans, Ray has silenced critics by dominating minor league hitters with the Toledo Mud Hens. Since surrendering a two-run home run to Jose Ramirez of the Columbus Clippers in the third inning on April 17, Ray has posted 17 1/3 straight scoreless innings.

Detroit hopes Ray can continue his hot streak against an Astros offense that's arguably less talented than some of the Triple-A teams Ray faced as a Mud Hen.

Houston ranks last in the American League in batting average, hits, runs, RBI and on-base percentage. Max Scherzer exposed the weak lineup in the first game of the series Monday, allowing just three hits in eight shutout innings.

Brett Oberholtzer, who is still searching for his first win of the season, will take the hill for Houston. Oberholtzer has lost five of his first six decisions, and pitched six or more innings just once on April 13, a 1-0 loss to the Texas Rangers.

TV: 7:08 p.m. ET, CSN (Houston), FSN (Detroit)

Houston desperately needs a turnaround start from Oberholtzer, who has surrendered six earned runs in each of his past two starts.

Detroit's offense was scorching-hot until Jarred Cosart tossed seven excellent innings in Comerica Park Monday. Still, the Tigers managed to score an unearned run in the seventh inning and Victor Martinez's solo home run in the eighth gave the Tigers just enough offense to secure a 2-0 victory to open this four-game series.

Martinez is just one of the Detroit hitters streaking hot. Torii Hunter added two more hits Monday to raise his average to .327 and extend his hitting streak to 12 games. Teammate Rajai Davis delivered the eventual winning run with a single that raised his team-leading average to .337.

Meanwhile, Scherzer continued his bid for a second straight Cy Young Award, lowering his league-leading ERA to 1.72 and recapturing the lead in strikeouts with 60 on the season.

Scherzer is leading a pitching staff that ranks second in the AL in ERA despite a struggling bullpen with 5.24 ERA.

That staff can only get stronger if Ray impresses tonight.  He has a chance to make a move similar to that of teammate Smyly, who filled in for injured Detroit starters in 2012. Smyly made 18 starts during the regular season and earned himself a spot on the postseason roster. He was added to the bullpen the following spring and became Jim Leyland's most reliable arm, posting a 2.37 ERA in 63 appearances.

Tuesday's game could be the first step towards earning a spot on the roster for Ray, who could replace Phil Coke as the primary left-handed reliever. Coke has surrendered 13 hits and three walks in 7 2/3 innings pitched and owns a 9.39 ERA.

If the Tigers decide that Ray is better suited as a full-time starter, then his performance during spot starts this year could have major implications on contract discussions with Scherzer in the offseason.

Though the Tigers hope to build on their 4.5-game lead in the American League Central Division, the debut of their young starter gives Tuesday night's game much more long-term significance.

Anibal Sanchez is on schedule to return from the DL on May 12, so Detroit still needs another starting pitcher on May 11 against the second-place Minnesota Twins . The opportunity appears to be Ray's to lose.

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