Wild Card race may hinge on showdown with O's

Tigers line up Fulmer, Zimmermann and Verlander to face Baltimore sluggers

Wild Card race may hinge on showdown with O's

DETROIT -- The schedule gave the Tigers an off-day Thursday to regroup from their gut-wrenching 7-4 loss on Wednesday to the White Sox. Come Friday, they get their reason to refocus.

Detroit's last series with an American League team outside the AL Central comes this weekend, when the Orioles roll into Comerica Park for three games. For all the focus on upcoming series against the division-leading Indians, these could be the three biggest games the Tigers have left to determine their postseason fate.

With six teams separated by five games for two AL Wild Card spots three-plus weeks to go, it's not exactly an elimination series. But with Baltimore holding the second spot and Detroit only a game behind, it's a series that could define the race down the stretch.

AL Wild Card standings

It's the stroke of scheduling fortune the Tigers needed, from a schedule that was set a year ago.

"It's probably a little ironic that we're facing Baltimore in September, out of division -- or fortuitous, depending on your outlook," manager Brad Ausmus said. "But it's an important series. Both teams are trying to clinch a playoff spot, and they're essentially fighting for the same ones right now."

For each team, it's the more realistic path to the playoffs. Though the third-place O's sit just two games behind the Red Sox and one game behind the Blue Jays in the AL East race, FanGraphs projected their chances at winning the division at just 9.9 percent as of Thursday morning. That's a product of their roster and schedule.

Baltimore's Wild Card chances, by comparison, are projected at 36.2 percent. The Tigers are projected at 41 percent, even though they are one game back. The difference is scheduling, with the Orioles stuck in the four-team AL East demolition derby, compared to the relatively settled AL Central.

Back-to-back losses to the White Sox dropped Detroit's division title chances from 8.8 percent on Monday to 4.9 percent on Thursday, even with upcoming matchups against Cleveland. The Wild Card, muddled as ever, is the Tigers' clearest path to October, and this is the best chance they'll get to control it.

"They're a very good team," Ian Kinsler said of the Orioles. "They're right in the thick of it, right along with us, so it's a big series for both teams and they're a good team. It's going to be a challenge. I'm glad we're playing them at home and hopefully it'll be a good series."

It's a big enough challenge that both teams tweaked their rotations to line up their top starters for it. Chris Tillman, Baltimore's 15-game winner, is expected to return from the disabled list to take the hill in Sunday's series finale, his first start since Aug. 20 due to right shoulder bursitis. He'll pitch opposite Justin Verlander in an ace showdown.

The Tigers will bring back Jordan Zimmermann from the DL to pitch Saturday in his first start since Aug. 4, and his second since June 30 due to neck injuries. They also passed on the opportunity to push back rookie sensation Michael Fulmer in the rotation, starting him on turn in Friday's series opener.

Fulmer freezes Trout in 4th

Fulmer pitches opposite Kevin Gausman, who has a 19-inning scoreless streak and a 2.73 ERA since the All-Star break, in a matchup of stingy young starters. Zimmermann's Saturday return pits him against former AL Central foe Ubaldo Jimenez, who went the distance in a victory on Monday.

"You'd better not make a lot of mistakes in the middle," Ausmus said, "but I think [O's manager Buck Showalter] would probably say the same thing about their pitchers to our hitters. I think whichever team pitches better is going to win. That's generally the case. If not, it could be a bit of a slugfest."

Jason Beck has covered the Tigers for MLB.com since 2002. Read Beck's Blog, follow him on Twitter @beckjason and listen to his podcast. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.