DETROIT — As touted as the Tigers lineup is, starting with reigning MVP and Triple Crown winner Miguel Cabrera, Rays manager Joe Maddon said what often goes overlooked is the fact they might have the best starting pitching in the American League.
Consider this: Tampa Bay entered the series at Comerica Park the highest-scoring team in the league the past month and a half. But the Rays scored a combined six runs in three games against Detroit, including Thursday's 5-2 loss that ended an eight-game road trip.
"They always say good pitching beats good hitting," rightfielder Matt Joyce said. "Their (rotation) is top three in baseball, for sure. And we haven't even seen their ace."
The Rays (32-27) didn't face former Cy Young winner Justin Verlander this week, but right-hander Max Scherzer pitched like an ace Thursday, allowing just one run in seven dominant innings. Maddon said a "great indication" of how good Scherzer was is how he handled Evan Longoria, becoming the second pitcher in the three-time All-Star's six big-league seasons to strike him out three times in one game, and the first since Red Sox left-hander Jon Lester on Aug. 4, 2009.
"He pretty much dominated me and did a good number on us as a team," Longoria said.
Scherzer (8-0) has done that to a lot of teams this year. Longoria said the Tigers pitcher used deception with his arm slot, mixed his pitches and didn't miss his spots. Maddon compared him to Tuesday's starter, Anibal Sanchez, who gave up just one run in seven innings. Doug Fister shut the Rays out the first eight innings Wednesday.
"This series, it seems like they were putting the ball where they wanted to, with the pitches they wanted to," Joyce said.
Said the Rays' Ben Zobrist: "They were really on point. I don't think anybody saw that many great pitches to hit the last three days."
Maddon said he thought Tampa Bay right-hander Roberto Hernandez also pitched pretty well, scattering 10 hits but carrying over some things he did in last week's dominant performance in Miami. But the Tigers (32-26) were able to score in the fourth on a two-run homer by Victor Martinez, Hernandez's former catcher in Cleveland.
"He threw the ball good, extremely good," catcher Jose Molina said. "One of those bad-luck losses."
Maddon pulled Hernandez (3-6) after 5⅓ innings and just 84 pitches, because there were runners on the corners and he wanted to keep it close. But reliever Jake McGee allowed a sacrifice fly to pinch-hitter Avisail Garcia to make it 4-1. And in the seventh, Cabrera singled off McGee's left shin before scoring on Martinez's RBI single.
"That," Maddon said, "was a big play."
The Rays were able to somewhat contain Cabrera, holding him to four hits and just one RBI the entire series. But Tampa Bay still dropped two of the three games to fall to 5-3 on the eight-game road trip, and it came close to getting swept had it not been for a gem by Alex Cobb on Wednesday and a three-run, ninth-inning rally.
"They're definitely going to be one of those teams that are going to be there at the end," Longoria said. "And hopefully we can see them later in the year, and into October."
Joe Smith can be reached at email@example.com.