It's hard to believe that the vaunted Tigers offense has already been blanked four times this year, but the pitching staff shoulders just as much blame for the team's slow start. The Detroit bullpen sorely misses Joel Zumaya and Fernando Rodney while the rotation -- not expected to be a strength anyway -- has been downright awful. The result? An AL-worst 92 runs allowed (through Tuesday's games.) With their bullpen woes months away from resolution and improvement unlikely at the back of the rotation, the Tigers desperately need Justin Verlander to pitch like an ace. He'll get another opportunity Thursday against Central Division rival Cleveland and groundball king Fausto Carmona, who sports a 3.35 ERA in eight outings against the Tigers. Unfortunately, Verlander has struggled to a 6.84 mark in nine starts against the Indians, including a brutal 8.89 figure in five starts at Jacobs Field. Even an ace belongs on the bench sometimes.
Matchups for Thursday, April 17
All times are ET. Statistics are from the 2008 regular season.
Willy Aybar, 3B, Rays (hamstring)
Michael Barrett, C, Padres (elbow)
Erik Bedard, SP, Mariners (hip)
Wilson Betemit, 1B, Yankees (eye)
Joe Borowski, RP, Indians (arm)
Cliff Floyd, OF, Rays (knee)
Mike Morse, OF, Mariners (shoulder)
Peter Moylan, RP, Braves (elbow)
Alfonso Soriano, OF, Cubs (calf)
Rafael Soriano, RP, Braves (elbow)
Ryan Sweeney, OF, A's (quad)
Shane Victorino, OF, Phillies (calf)
Ty Wigginton, 3B, Astros (thumb)
Joba Chamberlain, RP, Yankees (bereavement)
Brian Giles, OF, Padres (abdomen)
Howie Kendrick, 2B, Angels (hamstring)
Jose Reyes, SS, Mets (hamstring)
Jimmy Rollins, SS, Phillies (ankle)
Brett Tomko, SP, Royals (leg)
Start 'em, sit 'em
Hitters: Mike Mussina may be in the decline phase of his fine career, but he can probably still get Jason Varitek out. The Red Sox catcher is 9-for-62 against Mussina, with only one extra base hit and four walks to accompany 25 strikeouts. Give Frank Thomas a routine day off. The Blue Jays designated hitter is a mere 4-for-21 against Rangers starter Vicente Padilla. Seattle starter Carlos Silva has stymied the A's middle infield combo of Mark Ellis and Bobby Crosby. The pair has managed only six hits and no walks in 36 at-bats versus Silva. Even with his platoon partner Mike Morse on the disabled list, Brad Wilkerson should not be in the lineup Thursday against lefty Lenny DiNardo. With the Cardinals facing left-hander Manny Parra, outfielders Skip Schumaker and Chris Duncan will be on the bench in favor of platoonmates Ryan Ludwick and Brian Barton.
Pitchers: Jon Garland saw plenty of the Royals when he was with the Central Division rival White Sox. He's 16-6 with a 3.54 ERA in 30 starts against Kansas City, and current Royals hitters have managed only a .658 OPS off the Angels right-hander in 204 at-bats.
Jeff Francis has been roughed up by the Diamondbacks twice this year, but Arizona does lead the league in runs scored. Now Francis gets a hyped duel with Jake Peavy in pitcher-friendly Petco Park on Thursday. That matchup seems a likely antidote to his slow start, but Francis has actually fared poorly in Petco, posting a 5.44 ERA in eight career starts there. He's also struggled just as much as his surface stats indicate so far in 2008, striking out only five batters in 11 1/3 innings while allowing a .380 batting average against. Don't be seduced by Petco's charms; keep Francis reserved until he shows improvement.
Hitters: Needing a temp with left fielder Moises Alou starting the season on the disabled list, the Mets turned to Angel Pagan and found a hot bat. Pagan lacks the power and speed to be a long-term regular, but he's hitting .381/.462/.500 so far and could see enough at-bats in the potent Mets lineup to be a really useful addition. Astros second baseman Mark Loretta has filled in for injured starter Kazuo Matsui reasonably well so far, and has really been heating up over the past few games. He's also had some past success against Phillies starter Brett Myers (6-for-18 lifetime). Twins second baseman Brendan Harris has scored six runs in his past games, going 8-for-21 during that span and raising his average to .325.
Pitchers: Gavin Floyd took a no-hitter into the eighth inning in his last start. (Of course, it was just the punchless Tigers.) The pitching-starved can use Floyd against the Orioles, but expect growing pains as he takes a step forward this year.
Like Floyd, Edinson Volquez is a talented young pitcher poised for advancement in 2008. Like Floyd, there will be growing pains, so he's best suited for those who like to gamble.
Games at Toronto and Minnesota are always weatherproof. The Brewers' trip to St. Louis is the only Thursday game threatened by a band of showers across the Great Plains.
Will Harris is a fantasy baseball and college football analyst for ESPN.com.