Looking ahead to Tigers-Rays

Five things to look for in the Tigers’ four-game series at the Tampa Bay Rays (Thursday through Sunday):

1) How is Max Scherzer?
Scherzer will be making just his second start since the death of his younger brother, Alex. After pitching Thursday, Scherzer will leave the team to head home to St. Louis for his brother’s memorial service, set for Sunday. Scherzer and his brother were very close, and there’s no way to predict how he’ll handle the grieving process. The fact that he was able to pitch this past Saturday, two days after his brother died, shows Scherzer’s mental toughness.

2) Marquee matchup
Justin Verlander (8-4, 2.52) and David Price (10-4, 2.95), two of the best pitchers in the game, will duel on Friday. This isn’t interleague play, so they won’t bat against each other. But it’s a safe bet that runs will be at a premium for both teams. Verlander and Price might also be pitching for a starting job on the AL All-Star team.

3) Defense, defense
The Rays are known for their excellent pitching, but they’re not as great with the gloves. The Baltimore Orioles passed them Wednesday night for most errors in the AL, with 66 to the Rays’ 64. Those two teams are tied for the worst fielding percentage at .977. Of course, anyone watching the Tigers play Wednesday night knows they aren’t exactly the best defensive team either. The Tigers are 10th in the AL, have committed 52 errors and have a .981 fielding percentage. They allowed an unearned run Wednesday, giving them a major league-leading 41, one more than the Rays.

4) Trends vs. Tampa
Since losing six straight games to the Rays in 2010, the Tigers have gone 8-3 against them, including taking two of three at Comerica Park the first week of the season. In those 11 games, the Rays have managed just 26 runs. Despite their 13-9 loss in Texas Wednesday, the Tigers are 36-27 on the road since Aug. 11, 2011. The Rays are 8-12 at home since May 13.

5) What happens after the Rays series?
Last season, the Tigers were 68-58 and had a 4 1/2-game lead in the Central Division heading into a four-game series in Tampa on Aug. 22-25. The Tigers won three of four, and manager Jim Leyland pointed to it after the fact as a turning point in the team’s 27-9 finishing kick. Things were very different in 2010. That season, the Tigers went to Tampa for a four-game series July 26-29 with a 51-46 record and sitting two games back in the division. They lost all four games and were out-scored 19-8. The Tigers finished the season 81-81 and 13 games out of first.