Justin Verlander (7-7, 4.71 ERA) starts for the Tigers to open the two-game series against the Dodgers. (Robin Buckson / Detroit News)
Detroit — Sure, the real All-Star Game is next Tuesday in Minneapolis.
But outside of that exhibition game at Target Field, you’d be hard-pressed to find more star power in the same ballpark than over the next two days at Comerica Park in Detroit.
The Dodgers are coming to town for a brief two-game set against the Tigers.
And it promises to be a fascinating showdown between two clubs with the highest of World Series aspirations — two clubs that, no surprise, are sitting atop their respective divisions, the Tigers still comfortably, the Dodgers not so much.
“These are both World Series-or-bust organizations right now,” said Jon Paul Morosi, national baseball writers for Fox Sports, and a Metro Detroit resident.
“They are trying to win the World Series in 2014, and both teams are going to figure out 2015 when 2015 gets here.”
Of course, that’s how they felt about 2013, too.
The Tigers and Dodgers both liked their chances to make the World Series last fall, and the oddsmakers liked the match up too. And if not for stumbles in the Championship Series, Las Vegas might’ve gotten its dream World Series.
The Dodgers had two supremely winnable games in St. Louis in last year’s National League CS, but lost them, so the Cardinals advanced in six games.
The Tigers had a chance to go up 2-0 in Boston in the American League CS, but a bullpen meltdown cost them Game 2, and so the Red Sox won in six.
So, the Tigers and Dodgers went back to the drawing board — and remarkably, both decided to take similar paths. Both already had superior rotations, so they focused on the offense, particularly on getting some speed into the lineup and, thus, becoming more versatile in their ability to win games.
For the Dodgers, it’s been the emergence of Dee Gordon, who, after a winter in which he played in two winter leagues, is on pace to be baseball’s first 80-steal player since Vince Coleman and Rickey Henderson did it in 1988 — the year, in fact, Gordon was born.
The Tigers, meanwhile, went outside for help their, trading the lumbering Prince Fielder for the dynamic Ian Kinsler, and signing Rajai Davis to a modest free-agent contract.
The end result, for both teams, has been two of the better offenses in the game.
That’s just one of the many similarities between these clubs.
They both spend through the nose — the Dodgers are the first major-league team ever to top $200 million in payroll, while the Tigers continue to spend beyond the rational means of a mid-market entity.
They both rely on the strength of their rotation. They both are loaded with stars, the Dodgers with Yasiel Puig (making his first appearance in Detroit), Clayton Kershaw, Zack Greinke, Adrian Gonzalez, Matt Kemp and Hanley Ramirez; the Tigers with Miguel Cabrera, Max Scherzer, Victor Martinez, Anibal Sanchez, Justin Verlander and Torii Hunter.
Heck, the Tigers and Dodgers even find common ground in their warts. While they’ve both played very well on the road, it hasn’t been pretty at home. And both teams need bullpen help. Brian Wilson and Chris Perez haven’t worked out with the Dodgers, and Joe Nathan is a concern with the Tigers.
Interestingly, this is the second time the Tigers and Dodgers will play this year — they split another two-game series in L.A. in April — but they may do battle again on the trade market. They could very well be competing for the same relief help, like Joaquin Benoit, Huston Street, Jason Frasor, Joakim Soria, etc.
“That’s another similarity between these two teams,” said Scott Miller, the national baseball writer for Bleacher Report, and a Metro Detroit native. “They usually live with their rotations, and then things can get a little bit exciting in the seventh, eighth and ninth innings.”
Of course, when things are going right, the Tigers and Dodgers don’t need much relief help.
The Tigers came into the season with what many considered the top rotation in the game, and it’s darn good — with Scherzer, Sanchez, Verlander, the always-progressing Rick Porcello and Drew Smyly. While it’s been good, it’s surprisingly inconsistent too, the big reason why the Tigers have had long stretches of being hot and cold.
The Dodgers came in with the best 1-2 in the game, Kershaw and Greinke, and it’s lived up to the hype — Kershaw with a 36-inning-and-counting scoreless streak (that, sadly, won’t be on the line in Detroit; he’s being held back until Thursday), Greinke pitching like the guy who won the Cy Young in 2009.
But Josh Beckett is having a late-career resurgence, even throwing a no-hitter, Ryu is a very solid lefty in his second year over from South Korea, and you can’t find a better No. 5 starter than Dan Haren.
And get this: That might not be enough in the eyes of ownership, which, of course, includes Michigan State basketball legend Magic Johnson. There are persistent rumblings the Dodgers want to acquire Rays ace David Price. Hey, the A’s didn’t need starting pitching either, and just acquired Jeff Samardzija and Jason Hammel.
“To me, that’s the biggest difference at the moment,” Miller said of the rotations — the Dodgers on a roll, and the Tigers not as much.
There’s another common theme here, too.
And that’s in the health of the teams.
Both the Dodgers and Tigers have some serious injury issues lingering. Dodgers shortstop Hanley Ramirez, in the MVP discussion last year, has nursed a sore shoulder much of the year.
Meanwhile, Martinez, the Tigers DH, has missed the last three games with a side-muscle issue — and the Tigers offense, predictably, took a turn for the worse in his absence.
Neither team can afford either injury to last much longer.
That said, both teams have help on the way. Dodgers outfielder Carl Crawford (ankle) is on his way back, as are Tigers outfielder Andy Dirks (back) and reliever Joel Hanrahan (Tommy John).
Interestingly, the losses have allowed for the emergence of some unexpected performances.
The Tigers, of course, have received a massive lift from J.D. Martinez, who Sunday hit his 12th home run in just 49 games — for comparison’s sake, Cabrera has just 14 homers in 85 games. The Dodgers, in turn, have welcome the play of utility player Scott Van Slyke and his .410 on-base percentage.
For Van Slyke, this two-game series is sure to be special. The son of the former Tigers first-base coach, Scott and Andy Van Slyke used to participate in many games of football toss at Comerica Park.
These are two teams who’ve taken very different paths to first place. Don Mattingly's Dodgers (51-40) were slow out of the gate, thanks in large part to going a month without Kershaw (back injury) and have been scorching lately to turn a whopping 9.5-game deficit in the NL West on June 8 into a half-game lead over the Giants today.
Meanwhile, Brad Ausmus' Tigers (48-37) have been all over the map, from way up to way down to way up and now they're scuffling again, though they still lead the Royals in the AL Central by four games.
Two teams, a lot in common. But the biggest thing they share are their championship aspirations. This is a World Series in July – perhaps a preview of the real thing, in October.
“That,” said Morosi, of Fox Sports, “would be some kind of World Series.”
Dodgers at Tigers
Series: Two games, Tuesday-Wednesday, Comerica Park, Detroit
First pitch: 7:08 Tuesday, 1:08 p.m. Wednesday
TV/radio: Both games on FSD/97.1, 1270
Series probable: Tuesday – LHP Hyun-jin Ryu (9-4, 3.08) vs. RHP Justin Verlander (7-7, 4.71); Wednesday – RHP Zack Greinke (11-4, 2.66) vs. RHP Max Scherzer (10-3, 3.47)
Tuesday’s scouting report
Ryu, Dodgers: No sophomore slump for the lefty from South Korea, who has posted quality starts (six-plus innings, three or fewer earned runs) in all but four of 16 starts this season.
Verlander, Tigers: He’s showing signs of figuring things out, with a 3.32 ERA over his last three starts. In that span, he’s struck out 20 in 19 innings. That’s usually a tell-tale sign things are getting better.