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Rockies vs. Tigers series preview: schedule, probable pitchers, and Q&A with Bless You Boys

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John Marlatt of Bless You Boys helps us preview the final interleague series of 2017

The Colorado Rockies (71-59, third place in NL West) wrap up their interleague schedule for 2017 as they begin a three game set with the Tigers (56-73, fourth place in AL Central) at Coors Field Monday night. After this week the Rockies have just one more series against non-NL West opponents for the rest of the season; it’s sure to be a hard-fought battle to the finish as that includes 14 total games against the Dodgers and Diamondbacks.

The calendar hasn’t yet flipped to September and the Rockies already have more wins than they had in three of the last five years. However, Rockies fans surely entered August hoping for more wins, as it appeared to be the easiest month of the schedule on paper. Barring a sweep of the Tigers, they will finish a month below .500 for the first time all season.

It wasn’t long ago that the Tigers were the dominant force atop the AL Central: four straight division titles and an American League Pennant from 2011 to 2014. They managed a second place finish last season, though they still finished eight games out of a playoff spot. Now, with an expensive and aging roster, they seem to be on the brink of a rebuild.

The Rockies are 14-13 all-time against the Tigers, including a 9-3 mark in Denver. They last met in 2014 in Detroit, where the Tigers, on their way to a fourth division title, swept the Rockies out of Comerica Park in three games by a combined score of 19-7. By that point the Rockies were already 21 games below .500 and 18 games out of first place. This year, they are 20½ games out of first (stupid Dodgers).

We asked John Marlatt of our SBNation partner site Bless You Boys to answer some questions to help preview the three-game set.

For a while it seemed like the Tigers might be able to make a run at one of the Wild Card spots. Now they are pretty solidly on the outside looking in of a crowded playoff chase. What’s gone wrong this season?

What hasn’t? Most Tigers fans were pretty optimistic coming into 2017. They were returning most of the same crew as they had last year when they finished just shy of a Wild Card spot, so it seemed like they might be able to make another run at it. What has happened this year is too many steps back and too few steps forward. On offense, Miguel Cabrera is a shadow of his usual self, Ian Kinsler hasn’t had a great year, Victor Martinez has been pretty terrible, and Nick Castellanos didn’t perform to the level some had hoped. The only consistent offensive production has come from Justin Upton, and he can’t do it by himself.

On the pitching side of things, the only reliable starting pitchers the Tigers can point to are Justin Verlander and Michael Fulmer. After that it’s a mixture young guys who haven’t been able to make the next step in guys like Daniel Norris and Matt Boyd mixed with veterans who aren’t performing at anything close to their previous levels with Jordan Zimmermann and Anibal Sanchez.

Back in February, Mike Ilitch, owner of the Tigers since 1992, passed away at the age of 87. It was generally well known that Ilitch was more than willing to spend his fortune to try to get the Tigers their first World Series title since 1984 but came up empty. Briefly, what is the impact of his loss on this team and the city of Detroit?

In many ways Mike Ilitch was Detroit sports. As a Tigers fan, I can say he was an owner I think anyone would wish for. You could always count on Mr. Ilitch to open up the checkbook and do what he thought was necessary to put a competitive team on the field. It’s something that I think we all took for granted a little bit, and it’s going to be a rough adjustment to not have that happen going forward. I think it’s safe to say everyone wishes the Tigers could have won him a World Series while he was alive. He was great for Tigers and Red Wings fans, and great for the city of Detroit in general. He is and will continue to be missed.

Miguel Cabrera has been one of the best hitters in baseball for well over a decade now (and won back-to-back MVP’s to prove it). This year, he’s not even in the top 12 in team WAR and is hitting .254/.337/.407 with a modest 14 home runs. What’s happened?

To put it simply, he’s hurt. He injured himself in the World Baseball Classic in March, and he’s been playing with one sort of injury or another from that point on. At times the injuries are multiple. Cabrera is the type of player who would go to the plate with two broken legs as long as he could still stand and swing a bat, so even with the obvious effects of what he’s dealing with, he’s going to play through it. What he needs is a lengthy off season to rest and recover, and I’m guessing he’ll back to form next year.

Justin Verlander is once again one of the top pitchers in the American League. After a disastrous 2014 (4.54 ERA, 6.9 K/9) and an injury shortened 2015 (133 IP) many thought he might be washed up. How has he turned it around and what’s his future on this team?

The 2014 and 2015 seasons for Verlander were both injury related. Recovery from core muscle surgery lasted well into his 2015 campaign where he saw another slow start. His second half in 2015 is where Tigers fans really saw him turn back into the Verlander we know and love. He carried a 2.80 ERA and a 2.81 FIP through the second half of 2015 so for a lot of us a 2016 season where he should’ve won the Cy Young award wasn’t a real surprise. He just needed to get healthy again. His future on this team would seem to be largely dependent on money. If it weren’t for his giant contract I don’t think he’d still be a Tiger. There’s still a good chance he gets traded in the off season, but it’s going to come down to the Tigers agreeing to eat a lot of that contract or someone being willing to pay for him.

Last year’s Rookie of the Year Michael Fulmer has continued to be successful (120 ERA+) despite not earning a lot of strikeouts (6.7 K/9). What’s his secret?

It’s called a changeup. Fulmer’s happens to be exceptionally good. Once he started throwing that pitch, and throwing it at the right times, he catapulted himself into the position of one of the best young pitchers in the game.

This season hasn’t been too much fun. What has been good? What reasons for hope do you have for next year? What’s the overall future outlook for this team?

What has been good is Justin Upton, Justin Verlander and Michael Fulmer. My reason for hope going forward is that it appears the front office has decided that it is indeed time to rebuild. They traded J.D. Martinez, Alex Avila, and Justin Wilson prior to the deadline which returned some prospects that have immediately breathed life into the Tigers farm system. I think we’re in for some painful years in Detroit. The thing that will make it easier to handle is if there seems to be a coherent plan for rebuilding this team going forward. I think we’re starting to see that now, but trust in General Manager Al Avila is not all that great, so optimism is a bit tempered.

What--or who--else do you hope Rockies fans know about this year’s Detroit Tigers?

Mikie Mahtook. He was one of the many bodies the team acquired in the off season to throw at the Cameron Maybin sized hole in centerfield. Mahtook has not disappointed. He’s finally started to show some of that potential he had as a prospect hitting .281 on the year with a .792 OPS which along with his defense has added up to a 1.5 WAR player. I think that’s better than anyone expected, and he has turned into a bit of a bright spot in what is otherwise a pretty dismal season.

★ ★ ★

Probable Pitchers and Schedule

Monday, August 28 @ 6:40 pm MT (AT&T Sportsnet, 850 KOA/94.1)

Antonino Senzatela (10-4, 4.52 ERA) vs. Jordan Zimmermann (7-11, 6.11 ERA)

After taking two weeks off, Antonio Senzatela reentered the Rockies rotation on Wednesday only to be saddled with the tough-luck loss (5 IP, 2 R/ER, 9 H, 1 BB, 2 K). He’s still third on the team in innings pitched (121) despite throwing just 34 ⅔ innings at Double-A last year. His career high is 154 innings in 2015 at High-A, so I would imagine the Rockies may squeeze a few more starts out of him before sending him to the bullpen for the final stretch, perhaps when Tyler Anderson is healthy.

Tuesday, August 29 @ 6;40 pm MT (AT&T Sportsnet, 850 KOA/94.1)

Germán Márquez (10-5, 4.18 ERA) vs Michael Fulmer (10-11, 3.69 ERA)

Márquez did everything he could to keep the moribund Rockies offense in the game in his last start Thursday against Kansas City (thanks Pat Valaika!). It was a nice turnaround for Márquez, who had allowed nine earned runs over ten innings over his previous two starts. He has a 4.50 ERA in 10 home starts with a 8.0 K/9.

Wednesday, August 30 @ 1:10 pm MT (No TV, 850 KOA/94.1)

Chad Bettis (0-1, 3.79 ERA) vs Justin Verlander (9-8, 3.90 ERA)

In his first two starts since returning from cancer, Chad Bettis threw seven innings each time while allowing a total of two runs on eight strikeouts. His last start, Friday in Atlanta, did not go as well. He’ll look to rebound from that five earned over five innings performance by stepping back on the mound at the friendly confines of Coors Field (wait, what?).