At the outset of the season, any of three different teams could have reasonably been picked as favorite in the American League Central: the Twins, Tigers or White Sox. All three had been contenders within the past couple years, and all three had made moves to improve their roster during the offseason. Many pegged the Tigers -- who'd pushed the Twins to a tiebreaker the year before and infused some young talent over the winter -- as the most dangerous divisional opponent. Personally, the team that scared me most was the White Sox, and for one key reason: pitching.
Between Mark Buehrle, Jake Peavy, Gavin Floyd, John Danks and Freddy Garcia (not to mention top prospect Dan Hudson in the minors), the Sox entered the season with a deep rotation that ranked as easily the best in the division and perhaps the best in the league.
Sure enough, the White Sox have rebounded from a slow start to put on a clinic here in the middle months. Since dropping 9.5 games out of first place with a 24-33 record on June 8, Chicago has gone 39-17 and rocketed back to the top of the division. The hugely impressive run has largely come as the result of consistently outstanding work from Chicago's starters, who rank fifth in the AL (and first in the Central) with a 3.95 ERA.
Despite losing Peavy for the season back in early July, the Sox have gotten excellent production from Danks (3.30 ERA, 1.12 WHIP) and Floyd (3.49 ERA, 1.25 WHIP) while Buehrle and Garcia have mostly been steady (last night's dud from Garcia not withstanding). The team also recently added Edwin Jackson, who has posted a 1.38 ERA and 13-to-2 strikeout-to-walk ratio in his first two starts since coming aboard. (Not that I expect Jackson to be an asset down the stretch -- silly trade.)
As most readers of this blog are likely aware, starting pitching was an Achilles Heel for the Twins over the first half of the season, with 60 percent of the rotation turning in hugely underwhelming performances. Yet, since the All-Star break, the struggling Twins rotation has found its way back on track. Francisco Liriano and Carl Pavano, who have been the unit's steadiest members all year long, have continued to dominate opposing lineups while Scott Baker and Kevin Slowey have shown marked improvement and Brian Duensing has performed well in the place of demoted Nick Blackburn.
Since the All-Star break, the Twins have gone 18-7. During that 25-game stretch, they've held opponents to an average of 3.3 runs per game. In all but three of the 18 victories, they have allowed four runs or fewer. The offense has been good, to be sure (as Phil Mackey noted earlier this week, the Twins have led the majors in batting average, on-base percentage, runs, hits, doubles and triples over the past month), but that is the sign of a team being carried by its pitching staff.
Of course, it is necessary to note that the Twins have faced a soft schedule since the break, but the impressive stretch includes a four-game series against Tampa in which the Twins held arguably the best team in baseball to a reasonable average of 4.25 runs per contest. More importantly, they did it on the road, where their ERA is nearly a run higher and they've given up almost twice as many home runs.
The Twins have a clear offensive edge on the Sox, even moreso if Justin Morneau is able to rejoin the team at full strength somewhere along the line. But, in order to come out on top of this well-contested division, the Twins are going to need to keep up their fine work on the mound.
Tonight, they will be forced to start Glen Perkins in a key game, and it likely won't be the last time their pitching depth is tested here in the final months. The Twins reclaimed first place last night with authority, but their ultimate fate hinges upon the continued health and production of the starting rotation. They won't be scoring 12 runs against a team like the White Sox very often.