The time is upon us. A series that many had circled on their schedules at the beginning of the season is here, and the implications are huge. Win zero, season over. Win one, season (almost certainly) over. Win two, decent chance. Win three, driver's seat. It's as simple as that.
And now, for your reading pleasure, here are some excerpts from this series' Twins Dugout Splinters, which I wrote up for GameDay Magazine yesterday. Please pick up a copy of the (cheap!) program if you get out to a game this week!
Chasing the Same Thing
Entering the season, this is exactly the type of scenario a team asks for. It’s late September, and the Twins control their own destiny. They have a shot at the postseason, and if they truly want it they can take it.
OK, the situation is not ideal. They trail the White Sox by 2.5 games, and even if the Twins win all six remaining games on their schedule, they could still miss the playoffs. (The White Sox could sweep the Indians in their final series, then beat the Tigers in a makeup game, then force a one-game playoff against the Twins to determine the division winner.) Still, the Twins will be in decent shape if they can take two of three in this series – that would put them 1.5 games out going into their final series against the Royals. They’d be in very good shape if they can sweep this series, as that would put them a half-game in front and would put pressure on the White Sox to keep pace despite having a tougher match-up (Cleveland) in the season’s final series.
Asking for a sweep, or even a series victory, against the White Sox is a tall order. They are a good baseball team, and the three starters who the Twins are throwing in this series have not performed well versus the South-Siders this year. Against the Sox, Scott Baker is 0-1 with a 5.73 ERA in two starts, Nick Blackburn is 1-2 with a 6.14 ERA in four starts, and Kevin Slowey is 1-2 with a 5.82 ERA in three starts. Yet, all three of these hurlers have pitched exceedingly well at home (Baker: 3.28 ERA, Blackburn: 2.92 ERA, Slowey: 3.08 ERA) and these Twins in general have just played good ball at the Metrodome, with a 49-26 record here.
For all their differences, the Twins and White Sox really aren’t all that different. Obviously, their overall records are very similar. Their home/road splits are nearly identical. The Twins rank third in the AL in runs scored; the White Sox rank fifth. The Twins rank seventh in team ERA; the Sox rank sixth. Both teams rely on strong starting pitching, and both have dealt with some serious bullpen issues. In 13 head-to-head games this year, the Twins have won seven and the White Sox have won eight. These two clubs are about as evenly matched as they come, and that’s what makes this series truly intriguing.
The Twins’ chase of the White Sox in the AL Central will not be the only exciting race for Minnesota baseball fans to follow over the final week of the season. Joe Mauer and Justin Morneau are working on capturing their own individual titles, and unlike the Twins in the quest for the division crown, these two enter the last week as frontrunners in their respective races.
Entering play on Monday, Mauer led the American League in batting average at .330, with a relatively sizable lead over his nearest challengers, Dustin Pedroia (.324) and Magglio Ordonez (.323). Mauer won’t lead the major leagues in batting like he did in 2006 (Chipper Jones of the Braves entered the week hitting .362), but for a 25-year-old catcher to own two AL batting titles would be pretty amazing.
Meanwhile, Morneau may be on his way to becoming the AL RBI king, as his total of 128 leads Miguel Cabrera (125) Josh Hamilton (124). It seemed for much of the season that Hamilton would run away with this honor – he had driven in 103 runs through his first 100 games – but his pace has slowed considerably and Morneau has been a run-producing machine since the All-Star break.
The Twins haven’t been playing particularly well as of late, but the M&M boys have been doing everything within their power to carry the load. In the month of September, Mauer is hitting .391 and Morneau has knocked in 20 runs in 19 games. With the season winding down, the Twins are locked in a tight race for the division title while one of their stars aims for the batting title and another has legitimate MVP aspirations. Something about all this seems vaguely familiar…
What’s Not Working
That the Twins find themselves with a realistic shot at a playoff berth can be attributed in no small part to the offense, which has been the highest-scoring unit to grace the Metrodome since 1996. But this success has also had a lot to do with the unexpectedly strong contributions from the young and inexperienced pitching rotation. All five of the team’s current starters entered this season as relatively unknown quantities, and all five have proven themselves to be quality major-league pitchers.
But here, late in the season, this pitching staff is starting to crumble. Twins’ pitchers have posted a 6.19 ERA over the team’s past six contests entering the Chicago series, and this normally consistent rotation had gone five consecutive games without a Quality Start prior to Francisco Liriano’s outstanding performance on Sunday.
It’s possible that this group is going through a rough stretch. We’ve seen that before; remember the four-game series in Chicago back in June? But it’s also possible these guys are worn down. That’d be understandable, given that not one had put together a full season at the major-league level prior to this year, but if that’s the case it doesn’t bode well for the team going into this final week – or into the playoffs.