It has all come down to this. The Indians are 6.5 games behind Detroit with the Tigers coming to Cleveland for the most crucial series so far in 2011. There are four possible outcomes for the series and only one leaves the Indians with much chance at going to the playoffs this year. If the Indians lose this series, either 2-1 or 3-0, they will be a minimum of 7.5 games back with only 22 games left to play. The Indians do have the benefit of having 3 more games to play than the Tigers, but this can only make up 1.5 games in the standings and the Indians would have to win all three (These three games will take place 9/19 against the Mariners, 9/20 against the White Sox and 9/24 against the Twins). Assuming the Indians win all these after losing the series to Detroit, they would have 6 games to make up with 19 left to play. Assuming Detroit continues at their current pace, they will win 10 of these last 19. This means the Indians would have to win 16 of the last 19 to break even and would still probably have to sweep Detroit in the final 3 game series to have any chance. The Indians need to win this series more than any other series in a very long time.
There are a few good factors going for the Tribe going into the series however, to give off a little ray of hope. Grady Sizemore is scheduled to come off the disabled list tomorrow and should take Jared Head's place in the lineup. While he did hit an RBI double in the season finale against Kansas City, his 2 hits in 23 Major League at bats show that he isn't quite ready for the big time. Grady Sizemore has been one of the best players on the Tribe this season and is currently third among Indians in slugging percentage (of players with more than 2 at bats). The ability for the Indians to move Ezequiel Carrera to left field and possibly out of the leadoff spot makes a gigantic difference in the make up of this team.
Jason Kipnis also is looking to come off the disabled list this series, if not in the first game. Kipnis was on fire before being sidelined with a couple muscle strains. He had one five hit game and he hit 6 home runs and 4 doubles in his first 18 Major League contests. The majority of the damage he did came against the Red Sox and Tigers, two of the best teams in baseball.
Another positive injury note is that the Tigers just lost outfielder Brennan Boesch for the season. Boesch was an important part of the Tigers lineup, hitting .283 with 16 home runs and playing strong outfield defense. He has been a top of the lineup hitter for Detroit most of the season, hitting 2nd, 3rd and 4th and will now be replaced by Delmon Young (recently aquired from the Twins) in left field.
Doug Fister vs. Ubaldo Jimenez
I'm not posting the stats for either pitcher in this match-up, because they are very misleading. Both pitchers started with other teams (Fister was on the Mariners, Jimenez the Rockies) and now find themselves in much more meaningful games with at least a slight improvement in the offense behind them. The Indians have already faced Fister 4 times this year and the results have not been very promising. While the Indians have won 3 of the 4 games, they have only averaged 2.75 runs per game that he has started. To be more exact, Fister has a 2.35 ERA against the Tribe this year, so everything else can be ignored.
Jimemez is another story entirely. Rather than the elite shut down ace the Indians were hoping for when they traded Drew Pomeranz and Alex White to Colorado, he has been rather erratic, looking amazing at times, while just falling apart elsewhere. Unfortunately, so far there has been more bad than good from him, but his last two starts have seen improvements. This includes him getting more movement on his fastball which has lead to more swings and misses, adding up to 16 strike outs in his last 13 innings. Against the Tigers this year Jimenez is 2-1 with a 6.06 ERA. These numbers reflect his outings accurately as his first game as an Indian against Detroit was his best game so far and his last was his worst. It is extremely important that Jimenez pitches well in game 1, in order to save the elite members of the bull pen and to give the Indians a chance at the much needed sweep.
Rick Porcello vs. Fausto Carmona
The Indians have faced Porcello 3 times this season with mixed results. He should be the easiest of the three pitchers Detroit is puting out in this series, but you could say the same thing about Carmona from the other side. Porcello has a 9.42 ERA against the Tribe this year, but the youngest member of the Detroit rotation should not be over-looked.
Fausto has pitched well against Detroit this season, but has been hard to figure out all season. When he pitches well, the hitters have a hard time figuring out how to hit his sinker and when he doesn't no one can figure out why. While he has pitched better since his return from the disabled list not every game has been a gem. This game certainly seems like a must win at this point and may be the calm before the storm.
Justin Verlander vs. Justin Masterson
The battle of the aces. Masterson and Verlander are two of the 8 American League pitchers with an ERA below 3.00 and both have been absolutely dominant in 2011. Verlander has been especially impressive and is the favorite to win the Cy Young this year, with his ERA of 2.34 and a WHIP under 1.00. He was not just the first pitcher to 20 wins, but won his 21st before another starter got his 20th. Currently, Masterson has only 11 wins, but that is mostly due to his lack of run support this year. He won't be able to expect many against Verlander either as he has allowed only 1.69 runs per 9 innings against the Indians this year.
In order to win this series, the Indians can't just play better, they need to be better. This means they need the absolute best players available on the field at all times. This means Grady Sizemore and Jason Kipnis instead of Head and Donald. It means Matt LaPorta instead of Lou Marson and a strong DH in Jim Thome. If a relief pitcher outside of Perez, Perez, Pestano, Sipp and Smith gets into a game, I will assume that Manny Acta has given up on the season. This is not the time for random off days or whining little injuries. This is the time to win the Central Division and if the Indians really want it, they need to take it now.