Atlanta — Be careful, Tigers.
They survived an Indians series and deluges that made a tense four days at Comerica Park even more grueling. And they’re still scrapping for a playoff ticket.
Now for the irony:
They’re playing the Braves this weekend. You remember them. Last-place team in the National League East. Pretty much everyone’s whipping boy. And, yahoo, Tigers fans might have whooped, Detroit gets to play a gang of doormats precisely at the point Tigers skipper Brad Ausmus’ guys dream of a dandy weekend sweep in their quest to win a wild-card playoff spot next week.
The rub is obvious to anyone who has studied the Braves since midseason. They’re now pretty good. In fact, they’re hot. Which isn’t the brand of team Ausmus’ crew will appreciate, especially when to beat Atlanta these days it’s absolutely essential you have starting pitching that can lasso and hog-tie hitters who have been as rambunctious as the Braves offer.
Daniel Norris gets a crack at Atlanta tonight (7:35 p.m.) after his supposed Thursday start against the Indians was washed away by Motown’s monsoons. Then it’s Jordan Zimmermann at 7:10 p.m. Saturday and, because it’s the last day (scheduled) of the regular season and all big league games begin with a shotgun start, Justin Verlander will be Detroit’s choice at 3:10 p.m. Sunday.
Mind you, that Sunday game is no typical season grand finale in Atlanta.
It’s the final game at Turner Field.
Think back to 1999, when the Tigers said goodbye to Tiger Stadium with an 8-2 victory and a Rob Fick grand slam against the great ballpark’s right-field roof.
If that particular series of events crafted by a Tigers team that finished the year 69-92 says anything, it’s that the Braves could feel Sunday as if they’re the folks who will script any and all drama, even if Verlander is set to start for the Tigers with a possible postseason trip at stake.
Regardless, Verlander versus Braves gunslinger Julio Teheran is Sunday’s plan ahead of Monday’s rained-out makeup game against Cleveland, which will only be staged if it has any postseason relevance.
Here’s what the Tigers will confront this final weekend at Turner Field:
Begin with a Braves team that has gone 22-13 in its last 35 games and 48-46 since mid-June. This, after beginning the 2016 season as if Atlanta had some kind of fixation on next year’s first overall draft pick. The Braves began 18-46 en route to ash-canning manager Fredi Gonzalez and replacing him with Brian Snitker, who isn’t a bad bet to pocket a longer-term job heading into 2017.
Tigers pitching must be super sharp
Shift to Atlanta’s offense, which has been quite the story since mid-summer.
Freddie Freeman was flaunting a 30-game hitting streak ahead of Thursday’s game, longest by any big league hitter in 2016. The Braves’ big (6-foot-5, 220 pounds), left-handed-hitting first baseman has 33 home runs and is batting .306.
Move next to Matt Kemp. Yes, the same Matt Kemp the Dodgers, and later Padres, were trying to place in a UPS box and ship to any team that might have him ahead of the Braves saying yes in July.
Kemp turned 32 last week and has been playing as if he had been waiting all his life for a hug from Atlanta. In 52 games for the Braves, Kemp’s slugged 11 home runs, is batting .289, and has an .863 OPS, all while helping Atlanta become the third highest-scoring team in the big leagues, at least since he and a wheelbarrow of Padres money were procured on July 30 in a deal for one Hector Olivera.
Plug into the Braves’ sudden circuitry rookie shortstop Danby Swanson (.300), the Tigers’ old Orioles friend, Nick Markakis (.271, 38 doubles), as well as center fielder Ender Inciarte (.295), not to mention a catcher the Tigers remember from his White Sox days, Tyler Flowers (.270, .782 OPS) and it’s no wonder the Braves are scoring runs and that the Tigers will need their starters — and bullpen — to be super sharp this weekend.
It’s what happens when you play a cross-league team that might have slipped from the fan base’s consciousness. Much can change in a hurry. And it definitely has with the Braves as the Tigers arrive for their weekend dogfights against a supposed bottom-dweller that, in that context, isn’t to be confused with, say, the Twins.
Trial and test
It can be argued that the Tigers got a break with Thursday’s floods. A game was mercifully canceled and Norris was saved for tonight’s series opener.
If he can corral the Braves tonight, and Zimmermann rediscovers some of his old starch Saturday, the Tigers will have precisely what they had hoped for Sunday: Verlander pitching in a game that might or might not have life-or-death playoff implications.
But remember, too, Sunday’s significance, locally. The Braves are waving goodbye to Turner Field. They’ll want their second-half surge to end in a crescendo that, for them, will be as important as anything for which the Tigers are playing.
Something to keep in mind, Tigers, after a long season and a long, wet week at Comerica Park.
This will be a trial and a test, this Braves finale. Win big this weekend and the Tigers will have every right to feel like a playoff team that a town’s baseball faithful yet hope they can be.