(Sports Network) - The Detroit Tigers begin what could be a make-or-break week-long road trip for the American League Central contenders tonight at Tropicana Field, where the struggling and injury-plagued club takes on the Tampa Bay Rays in a clash of postseason hopefuls.
Detroit enters the opener of this four-game series just two games behind first-place Chicago in the AL Central standings, but hasn't performed like a playoff-worthy team lately. The Tigers have lost nine of their last 12 contests and dropped all four bouts of their only road set during that span, which came against last-place Cleveland from July 16-18.
Winning away from home has been a challenge for Detroit all year long. The Tigers are a poor 16-29 on the road this season and haven't taken a series as the visitor since registering a two-game sweep at Oakland from May 19-20.
The Tigers also starts up this important trip, which also includes a stop at Boston's Fenway Park, at nothing close to full strength. Detroit has lost three lineup regulars -- third baseman Brandon Inge (broken hand), right fielder Magglio Ordonez (fractured right ankle) and second baseman Carlos Guillen (calf strain) to injuries over the past week.
Detroit will be coming in with a bit of momentum, however, after putting forth a strong rally to deliver a much-needed 6-5 win over Toronto in yesterday's finale of a doubleheader. The Blue Jays prevailed in the opener by a 5-3 count.
Toronto appeared headed for a sweep of the twinbill after carrying a 4-2 lead into the bottom of the eighth, but the Tigers responded with four runs to move ahead. MVP candidate Miguel Cabrera brought Detroit within a run by smacking a two-RBI double with one out, and Ryan Raburn put the team ahead two batters later with a two-run double off his own off Jays reliever Jason Frasor.
Raburn finished with three RBI in the nightcap, while Cabrera went 2-for-4 to raise his season average to .350. Reliever Phil Coke (6-1) garnered the win by throwing a scoreless top of the eighth, with All-Star closer Jose Valverde notching his 21st save despite allowing a solo homer to Dewayne Wise in the ninth.
Valverde also struggled in the first game, serving up a two-run homer to Lyle Overbay in the top of the ninth that snapped a 3-3 deadlock.
Tampa Bay will embark upon a season-high 11-game homestand this evening and returns to Tropicana Field off back-to-back wins over Cleveland over the weekend. The Rays took Sunday's rubber match of the three-game series by a 4-2 score, with Reid Brignac belting a three-run homer to support a strong outing from starting pitcher Wade Davis.
Brignac's second-inning blast off Justin Masterson gave Tampa a 3-1 advantage, and Davis overcame a shaky beginning to make the lead stand. The rookie righty was touched for a run in each of the first two frames, but held the Indians scoreless over the remainder of his 6 1/3-inning stint to move to 8-9 on the season.
"The first two innings was an uphill battle," Davis said. "Couldn't really find anything to go to throughout the whole game, but we played some great defense today and won the game."
Sunday's victory kept the Rays within three games of the first-place New York Yankees in the AL East standings. Following this series, Tampa Bay will host the defending world champions in a three-game set.
Matt Garza will attempt to follow up Davis' sharp showing, as well as rebound from a horrible last start, when he takes the mound for the Rays tonight. The usually-reliable right-hander was torched for seven runs in 6 1/3 innings of a road loss to Baltimore last Tuesday, giving up four homers and 10 hits overall in a forgettable performance.
Heading back to Tropicana Field could get Garza back on track, as he's registered three wins and a no-decision in his last four starts there and sports a 5-2 record in 10 overall games (nine starts) at home this year.
Garza does not have a track record of success against the Tigers, however. In six lifetime encounters with Detroit, the 26-year-old is 0-4 with a 5.85 earned run average.
The Rays figure to face a stern test tonight from Detroit starter Max Scherzer, who's been terrific since being recalled from a brief banishment to the minors in late May. In 10 starts following his return to the big leagues, the young right-hander has compiled a 6-3 record and an outstanding 2.54 ERA in addition to racking up 74 strikeouts over a span of 63 2/3 innings.
Scherzer was on top of his game once again this past Wednesday, yielding just four hits and fanning five over seven shutout frames to defeat AL West leader Texas. It's the fifth time in his last six starts the former Arizona Diamondbacks first-round selection has given up one run or less.
The University of Missouri product, who turns 26 on Tuesday, is just 1-5 with a 5.61 ERA in nine road starts this season, however. This will be Scherzer's first-ever start against the Rays.
Detroit has lost its last six contests on the road, but did sweep a three-game set from the Rays at Tropicana Field last September. The Tigers won five of the seven overall meetings between the clubs in 2009.