Quick Housekeeping: Plenty of game preview stuff below, including Q&A with a Tigers blogger, but before getting started I just wanted to mention a development that I find pretty cool but that many of you may not really care about. Yesterday, you might have noticed the appearance of an ESPN emblem on this blog's right sidebar; that's because Rob Neyer has invited NTB to become part of the SweetSpot Network of blogs being featured on ESPN.com. As a guy who holds vague aspirations of becoming a sportwriter one day, becoming affiliated in any way with Neyer and the global sports coverage juggernaut that is ESPN is a tremendous honor. None of this will really affect any of the daily operations of this blog, but I'd just like to welcome anybody who's stopping by via the SweetSpot portal. Hope you'll stick around and share your thoughts.
It sure doesn't feel like it has already been a year since I last wrote a post previewing a play-in game to determine the AL Central champion. The wounds from that tough 1-0 loss to the White Sox in Chicago remain fresh. If only the Twins could have scratched one run across; if only the Jim Thome homer had fallen short of the wall; if only Michael Cuddyer could have jarred the ball loose from A.J. Pierzynski's mit when he careened into home plate on an attempted sacrifice fly. Everything is magnified in a game such as that one, because it is the very definition of "must-win."
Today, the Twins find themselves in the very same position. Amazingly, they are set to participate in a 163rd game to break a tie atop the AL Central standings for a second consecutive year. Last season, a coin flip forced the Twins to play the decisive game in Chicago, putting them at a marked disadvantage despite the fact that they'd won the season series against the White Sox. Fortunately, Major League Baseball made the decision to abolish that illogical method after the 2008 season, but few would have predicted that this rule change would come back to benefit the Twins so quickly. Going 11-7 in head-to-head match-ups with the Tigers this year has earned the Twins home-field advantage for today's game, which should prove crucial as 50,000-plus raucous fans pour into the Metrodome for what could be the final major-league baseball game ever to be played within its confines.
The Twins enter this game with just about every advantage they could ask for. Even looking beyond the home-field edge, the Twins will be sending out their best starting pitcher in Scott Baker, who has recoved from a rough start to go 15-5 with a 3.79 ERA over his past 28 starts (the Twins are 19-9 in those games). They'll be facing Rick Porcello, who has put together a strong rookie season but certainly is not Detroit's ace. He's also only 20 years old and is unaccustomed to pitching on a stage of this magntitude. His right-handedness plays well for a Twins lineup that will come very lefty-heavy. Furthermore, the Twins hold a sizable advantage in the momentum game -- they've won 17 of their past 24 contests while the Tigers have dropped 15 of 26 and are dealing with the ill-timed off-the-field issues of their best hitter, Miguel Cabrera (for more on this, check out the Q&A at the bottom of today's post).
But, as we all know, anything can happen in baseball. These teams are pretty evenly matched, and once they take the field today all the things I mentioned in the paragraph above are going to shrink vastly in significance. One team is going to play a better game, win, and move on to face the Yankees in the first round of the playoffs. The other team is going to lose and go home. We Twins fans are all too familiar with that latter feeling after last year's finale against the White Sox.
But, how are the Tigers faithful feeling? I ran some questions past Kurt Mensching, who runs the excellent Mack Avenue Tigers blog, to get his thoughts about Cabrera, Ron Gardenhire and his team's chances this evening. Here's what he had to say:
NN: First things first, since I'm sure it's your favorite current topic, let's talk about Miguel Cabrera. You've written about the situation on your blog, but give us a quick rundown of the general sentiment out there regarding your team's star first baseman. Are fans angry that he is engaging in this type of irresponsible behavior during the most important part of the team's season? And do the Tigers deserve to be scrutinized for allowing him to play roughly 12 hours after he blew a .26?
KM: Well, in case your readers haven't gotten the full story yet, I'll give a bit of background first. Miguel Cabrera came to Saturday's game with scratches on his face and told reporters his dog did it to him. He went 0-for-4 that night, including hitting into a double-play in a key eighth-inning situation. Speculation was that it probably wasn't his dog.Turns out, he came home around 6 in the morning drunk after a night out with some friends on the White Sox. (I know what we're all thinking. Friends on the White Sox? How is that even possible?! The WHITE SOX?!) But the bigger deal was that when police administered a test of his alcohol level, it came back .26. That's about eight hours before he was due at the ballpark. After he spent all night out drinking.
The series with Chicago was incredibly important for the Tigers to win, and the cleanup batter was incredibly drunk just 12 hours before it.
Fans can only be disappointed that he apparently cares so much less about winning the Tigers' first division title in 22 years than we do. Not all of us. Some say his private life is up to him. But I and many others believe his professional obligation was to be in peak condition for a key game, and he was not.
I do think it's fair to question why manager Jim Leyland allowed Cabrera to play Saturday night, but he was closer to the situation than I am. So if he felt Cabrera had sufficiently recovered from his mroning, then I'll stand by his decision.
I just wish this entire mess never occurred.
NN: The Twins have been playing good ball, but their comeback would not have been possible if not for the epic slide the Tigers have experienced. What are some of the key reasons for the team's struggles late in the season? How can they overcome these issues and pick up a win in Tuesday's game?
KM: I don't think the Tigers' slide actually was epic. They went 17-15 from Sept. 1 until the end of the season. Given no team in this division was more than a handful of games over .500, it seemed to be in line with their typical month. In the past, they've surprised against teams and disappointed against others. Certainly going 2-for-7 the final week does feed into the viewpoint of a collapse. But fact of the matter is, this just isn't all that good of a team to begin with.
To me, the true story remains that the Twins went 16-4 down the stretch.
As for why the Tigers disappointed, a few reasons: LHP Jarrod Washburn, who came over July 31, never pitched all that well due to a knee injury and was lost for September. Another starter, Armando Galarraga, was lost with an elbow injury for most of the month. Edwin Jackson turned back into a pumpkin.
And the Tigers batters continued to be awful, making the pitchers have even less margin for error. August trade-acquisition Aubrey Huff stunk up the joint too. (I think GM Dave Dombrowski shopped at Rent-a-Wreck this summer.)
I believe Leyland relied too much on some veterans down the stretch and not enough on the younger players like Ryan Raburn who got them a seven-game lead in the first place.
NN: Ron Gardenhire is generally viewed as a bum in Minnesota (though not by me) and as a genius nearly everywhere else. What's your outsider's take on him as a manager, and how would you compare him to Jim Leyland?
KM: Just watching Gardenhire timing the pitcher to decide whether he has an opportunity to steal a base excites me.
It's hard to judge a manager from the outside of course. Followers of the team record every decision that makes no sense or doesn't turn out right. Outside the team, we only see the end result of a Twins organization always in the AL Central contention. How much credit the organization as a whole gets and how much Gardenhire gets, I'd be hard-pressed to say.
Still, if Detroit had an opening at manager, I think I'd be pretty happy if it stole him away. He just seems like a guy you'd love to have running your clubhouse.
NN: Do the Twins or Tigers match up better against the Yankees in a first-round playoff meeting? Would either team stand a chance, in your mind?
KM: Honestly, I don't see how either team has a chance, especially after having the play-in game the night before New York chose to open the ALDS. But right now, I believe Minnesota has a better team than Detroit does, so it probably gets a slight edge.
Detroit's rotation looked amazing in August. Still acceptable in early September. But now it seems to end after Justin Verlander and Rick Porcello. As well, we don't have nearly enough left-handed pitchers to contain the Yankees. Nor any batting really. I don't necessarily think the Twins pitching is a whole lot better, but it's hard to argue with the results Minnesota is getting. And the batting order is a whole heck of a lot more dangerous than Detroit's.
So I guess either team has a puncher's chance, but I really don't think the Yankees are going to stumble, unfortunately.
NN: Break down the pitching match-up for tonight's game, including your thoughts on Scott Baker and your prediction for how the youthful Rick Porcello will handle this giant stage.
KM: I'll tell you what, I don't think Porcello knows there even is a stage. That kid is unflappable as any young pitcher I've ever seen. A lot has been made about Verlander's game face, but Porcello is every bit as intense. Playing in key games for the past month, he has a better ERA (3.22 in September) than Verlander. And he's only allowed Minnesota in the past 12 1/3 innings he's faced them.
As a Tigers fan, I like the matchup against Baker better than any other Twins starter. He may be their ace, but he's also the only Twins pitcher Detroit has seemed to touch this season. He comes in with just one quality start in four tries against the Tigers and has allowed four runs, five runs and six runs in those other three games. Of the Tigers' likely lineup against him, only Brandon Inge and Placido Polanco have shown signs of struggle, while Magglio Ordonez hits him pretty well.
The crowd noise will obviously play a factor for both pitchers, but I really do think this is one of the best-case scenarios for the Tigers. If Carl Pavano was on the mound, I think you could break out the Champagne right now!
NN: Who wins, and why?
KM: For probably the first time, I feel like the Tigers can win. I truly do. Yes, it's freaking me out, and no, I'm not a homer. Despite the fact the Tigers struggle in the Metrodome, I like the pitching match-up a lot and feel like the Tigers have done well with their backs against the wall all season.
Big thanks to Kurt for the thoughtful answers. The Twins and Tigers battle for AL Central supremacy today at 4 o'clock, winner-takes-all. This is what it's all about, folks.