Baseball is a crazy game. Over the course of a nine-inning (or more) contest, just about anything can happen. A good pitcher can lack his best stuff and get knocked around by a weak lineup. A dominating cleanup hitter can go 0-for-4 and strand seven runners on base. A typically reliable bullpen can blow a five-run lead in the late innings. In any given game, it is not always the case that the best team wins.
That's why playoff contenders are sorted out over a long 162-game season. And it's why the road to the World Series is made up of five-game and seven-game series rather than single-elimination matches. Heck, sometimes even this system fails to produce a champion that could widely be considered the best team in the league. But this is the way baseball is designed; like panning for gold, this sport's regular season and postseason act as a methodical process of sorting out the top teams over the course of many games.
That won't be the case tonight. Tonight, the Twins and White Sox face off in a single play-in game that will decide the fate of each team's season. Win and you're in. Lose and go home. It goes against everything that baseball represents, but somehow, it seems oddly fitting for these two teams in this season.
As I wrote prior to the series at the Metrodome last week, the Twins and White Sox are in many ways mirror images of one another. Looking past the fact that the Sox are one of the most prolific home run hitting teams in the league while the Twins are one of the least, we find some almost eery similarities. With 162 games in the books, the teams are both 88-74. Both are 53-28 at home and 35-46 on the road. Both teams have a Pythagorean win/loss record of 89-73, indicating that neither team has been more "lucky" than the other. Both teams posted a 43-29 record against AL Central opponents. Minnesota scored an average of 5.1 runs per game while allowing an average of 4.9; Chicago scored an average of 5.0 runs per game while allowing an average of 4.8.
The Twins have won 10 of 18 head-to-head match-ups, but both teams have had their high and low points. I'm guessing you all remember the dominating four-game sweep that the White Sox laid on the Twins in their homepark back in June, and I'm quite positive you all remember the exhilarating three-game sweep the Twins pulled off when the Sox came to the Dome last week. It has been a season-long, back-and-forth slugfest, with neither team proving itself superior and neither team ever building much of a lead in the standings. I'm reminded of a moment late in The Dark Knight (a movie I've seen something like five times now), when the Joker -- hanging upside down and grinning psychotically -- tells Batman, "I think you and I are destined to do this forever."
Well, no more. Tonight's game is decisive. Whichever team wins this single game claims definitive victory in this riveting AL Central race. And, to be honest, I don't like the Twins' chances tonight. The game is being played in Chicago thanks to an arbitrary coin flip, and the Twins will be sending out Nick Blackburn, who is 3-7 with a 5.20 ERA on the road this year. The Sox, meanwhile, will start a tough left-hander in John Danks, though it's worth noting that he's going on three days' rest.
Tonight's game is going to be intense. To say it is like a playoff game is underselling it, because the majority of playoff games are not literally "must-win," as tonight's game is for both teams. As much as the realist in me says a major uphill struggle for the Twins, another part of me will focus on the fact that anything can happen. We've been reminded of that fact again and again this season.