The Notebook makes a Friday trip to Motown, where the Tigers host the Indians this weekend and we preview the Lions and Michigan football.
The AL Central race goes head-to-head in Detroit this weekend as the Tigers host the Indians in a three-game set starting tonight at Comerica Park. Two weeks ago Detroit was in position to really get a hold of his race when they went to Cleveland, but the Tribe won that series and has now closed the gap to 1.5 games. And the teams are dead even in the loss column with records of 65-58 & 62-58 to begin with.
Both teams have made additions to their outfields since that last meeting in Cleveland. The Tigers acquired Delmon Young from Minnesota, a perfect addition to an outfield that has been hamstrung by the decline of Magglio Ordonez. Young handles left-field duties while Brennan Boesch can jump over to right and take over for Ordonez. And the Indians have got Shin Soo-Choo back from the thumb injury that sidelined him over two months ago. When he’s healthy Choo is one of the game’s top rightfielders and he was just starting to get heated up when he got hurt. Cleveland has been at a distinct disadvantage to Detroit in two key areas, one of them being offense, and the return of Choo can at least help close that gap.
Detroit’s other big edge is the presence of Justin Verlander at the top of the rotation. Cleveland took a shot at rectifying that when they added Ubaldo Jiminez at the trade deadline and the former Rockie ace will get the ball in Sunday’s finale. Even more important is that Verlander’s turn doesn’t come up this weekend. The Tigers’ lack of pitching depth becomes painfully apparent when the Cy Young frontrunner doesn’t take the mound.
The Tigers everyday lineup is decisively superior, with Miguel Cabrera anchoring an attack that includes Alex Avila, Victor Martinez, Boesch and Jhonny Peralta. And Jose Valverde has been perfect in his save opportunities this year. Where the Indians have to win this series is in the window between the 6th and 8th innings. While the Tribe bullpen isn’t as dominant now as they were earlier in the year, they have a big edge on the Tigers. Add that to the fact Jiminez pitches while Verlander doesn’t, and the possibility exists for Cleveland to win based on pitching depth.
What we can expect from the starting pitchers is really anybody’s guess. Cleveland sends out Josh Tomlin for the opener against Detroit’s Max Scherzer. Both show enough to tease, but not enough to really feel confident about them in a big game. On Saturday, Doug Fister has to show that the Tigers didn’t make a mistake in getting from Seattle at the trade deadline and the Notebook didn’t make a mistake in heaping praise on the deal. Fister’s initial outings in Motown have been problematic . Cleveland sends out David Huff on Saturday, who’s been great, but the team doesn’t seem to want to commit to him in the rotation. It all adds up to an exciting weekend of baseball in Detroit, as these two Rusbelt rivals play the weekend’s biggest series.
DETROIT LIONS PREVIEW
Detroit showed a lot of promise last year, battling down to the end in a lot of games. Even though it didn’t show up in the final won-loss record, bettors who backed the Lions were rewarded with the league’s best record against the Vegas pointspread. That won’t be a lot of consolation to Lion fans who haven’t been in the playoffs since 1999, but it is a sign of a team that exceeds expectations and gives reason for hope that it will turn into real wins for 2011.
The Lions big strength comes in their defensive front four, which has turned into an outstanding unit. They have good pass-rushing ends in Cliff Avril and Kyle Vanden Bosch, and last year’s addition of rookie Ndamakong Suh gave them a force on the inside. I also like the move the team made in this year’s draft in getting Auburn’s Nick Fairley at defensive tackle, a player I would have taken first overall given his ferocious combination of size and speed. In a division where you have to match up with Aaron Rodgers, being able to pressure the quarterback is a necessity if you expect to compete.
It’s what happens once the ball is in the air that is the concern in Detroit. The secondary is filled with holes and only corner Chris Houston is a real strength. The report from the midlevel isn’t much better, with only middle linebacker DeAndre Levy being reliable. The Lion defense can stop the run and rush the passer, but can be beaten by a good short passing game. And on those downs where pressure doesn’t come, watch out deep.
Matthew Stafford is healthy and ready to resume his quarterback duties, but I think the franchise is making a mistake. Shaun Hill was extremely proficient in Stafford’s absence and is capable of leading this team to the playoffs. But Stafford was the #1 overall pick three years ago, so Detroit will succumb to stubbornness over performance. For the Lions’ sake, I hope Stafford is on a short leash, because this offense has very goo d potential, with Calvin Johnson leading up a receivers’ corps that includes promising rookie Titus Young out of Boise State. The running game will be solid if Jahvid Best can stay healthy.
There’s optimism in Detroit this season and it’s justified. They’re a trendy pick to finish ahead of Chicago and Minnesota in the NFC North and to push for a wild-card spot. I can see it happening, but they need the secondary to play well and they can’t futz around at quarterback.
MICHIGAN FOOTBALL REBUILDS
A new era—or more accurately an old era starting over—is about to commence in Ann Arbor. Michigan has abandoned its ill-fated attempt to compete with Ohio State and the rest of the Big Ten via the spread offense and brought in new head coach Brady Hoke to return the program to relevance. It was after the 2007 season that Michigan had gotten tired of only winning 8-10 games a year while losing to Ohio State, so they hired Rich Rodriguez to straighten the problem out. Which he did—Michigan immediately started losing to everyone, not just Ohio State and a 38-point loss to Mississippi State in the Gator Bowl was the final straw. Hoke, a man with Michigan roots and a track record of success at Ball State and San Diego State will lead Michigan into the Big Ten’s new superconference era.
There’s a lot of offensive talent on hand, although the big question is going to be how well Denard Robinson can adapt to Hoke’s pro-style system. Robinson, a shifty little runner with a nice arm was perfect for Rodriguez’s spread, but in a classic system he may be too small to get good vision downfield and his speed would not be utilized. He was viritually a one-man team a year ago, which obviously can’t sustain itself, but there will be growing pains with the transition. If Robinson can get settled in, he has a very good group of receivers to target led by Roy Roundtree, his top pass-catcher a year ago.
Hoke will change the defense from a 3-3-5 setup, a scheme that can work in the Big East, where Rodriguez came from, but ill-conceived in the physical Big Ten. This defense has been terrible for years now, pre-dating Rodriguez’s arrival. Hoke is determined to infuse toughness back into the defense and he has a pretty good line to do it with, anchored by tackle Mike Martin and three senior linebackers. The secondary is still very young and as a result opposing offense will still be able to put up points.
Michigan made a good hire in Hoke, a man in the mold of Lloyd Carr, the coach they foolishly fired after 2007. Hoke will have a winning season right away, make the Wolverines competitive against good teams and have this program in the hunt for the conference title in two years at the latest.
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