14 September 2010
This was originally going to be my column for tomorrow's Green Valley Newspaper, but I remembered the similar battles going on in the NL West and AL East, and decided to scrap most of my AL Central rambling. Here's the full cut of what I wrote about the Twins. The trimmed-down version can be found here.
Tonight, the Chicago White Sox and Minnesota Twins will square off for the first game in a crucial late-season series between two teams vying for the American League Central crown. The Twins are comfortably ahead in the standings, and with the season winding down, this could be Chicago's last stand.
The AL Central has required a Game 163 for each of the last two years, and the divisional race remains close this season. Though Minnesota has a firm grip on the division, and Chicago will need to push all their chips forward during this head-to-head matchup, anything can happen. Should this series not go favorably for the White Sox, Chicago's south-side squad could be sitting as many as nine games behind the Twins with just 16 contests left to be played.
Contrary to what some would have you believe, Minnesota is a legitimate World Series contender, and one of the best teams in the league. As Phil Mackey mentions, Twins' fans may suffer from an inferiority complex based on the struggle (along with failure and ineptitude) of local sporting teams. Mackey puts it best: “Let's treat the Twins (39-16 since the All-Star break) like they deserve to be treated, as a World Series contender that can compete with, and beat, anybody in baseball -- not as a team that is desperately clinging to a six-game lead with 19 games to go. The Twins aren't just a pesky team playing over its head. They are legitimate contenders.”
No, the Twins aren't simply the best team in a poor division battling for home-field advantage in the postseason. They are a team made up of several excelling offensive stars, as well as an outstanding one-two rotation punches. They have been playing well above their heads for the last month of so, but a six-game lead will be tough to lose.
Were it not for Minnesota's red-hot month of August the White Sox wouldn't even be in this do-or-die position. The Twins have gone an incredible 36-13 since sitting 3.5 games behind Chicago on July 20. The White Sox have dropped two games in the standings over the last two weeks despite winning nine of their last 13. Even without slugger Justin Morneau, who has been sidelined with concussion symptoms since July 7, the Twins' offense has been one of the best in the league.
A key offensive contributor for Minnesota this season, and one of the best free agent signings of the year, has been Jim Thome.Currently eighth on the all-time home run leaderboard, Thome is exceeding all expectations in his age-39 season. By hitting .277/.405/.635 (BA/OBP/SLG) with 23 home runs this season from a limited role, Thome has provided his new team with a powerful bat off the bench as well as a part-time designated hitter. With Morneau unavailable, Minnesota owes a great deal of its success to Thome.
Danny Valencia, 25, has been having an excellent rookie season for the first-place Twins. Perhaps more impressive than his success at the plate is Valencia's defensive skills from the hot corner. Minnesota has been unable to find a long-term solution at third base since the Corey Koskie days, relying on stop-gap solutions such as Tony Batista, Joe Crede, and even Michael Cuddyer, so Valencia has received a warm welcome in the Twin Cities.
Minnesota found some starting rotation stability this season, with the re-emergence of Francisco Liriaino and Carl Pavano coupled with the contributions of young Brian Duensing. The Twins' staff isn't at the same level as Chicago, though, which has prevented Minnesota from totally running away with the division.
Chicago has remained within striking distance of the Twins throughout the entire season, and have even held the division lead for a total of 25 days this year in spite their lack of a competent designated hitter for five months of the season. (Two weeks ago, the White Sox acquired Manny Ramirez, and booted Mark Kotsay's .702 OPS from the lineup.) Chicago hasn't been able to match Minnesota's freakish and bizarre ability to win games, though, and will likely be watching playoff baseball from home this season.
The White Sox will likely fall short this season despite another strong year from the bullpen. Three Chicago relievers (Sergio Santos, Matt Thornton, and JJ Putz) have posted an ERA under 3.00 so far this season, and even though the flame-throwing Bobby Jenks has a bloated ERA, he has received plenty of rotten luck (.368 BABIP) from the White Sox' less-than-stellar defense.
Chicago's starting staff has also been impressive, per usual. The regular trio of Mark Beuhrle, Gavin Floyd, and John Danks have each been excellent, and the White Sox have welcomed Edwin Jackson's checkered history to the rotation. Former Cy Young-winner Jake Peavy would have made this rotation even better, but he underwent shoulder surgery a few months ago and has started the long rehab process. (Which, by the way, could take a while. Peavy's latissimus dorsi muscle – the biggest and basically most important muscle in the back – wasn't just strained, it was completely detached from his shoulder. It was “cleanly detached,” though, so he could be back next May or June.)
The White Sox have managed to remain close as Minnesota won 13 of their last 16 games, but are holding on my a thread. This three-game series in Chicago could either spark an incredible comeback or the end to their season. Unlike the highly-publicized Rays/Yankees series, the Twins and White Sox cannot both be in the playoffs, which makes this series all the more watchable.
Both teams in this AL Central matchup fiercely dislike each other and want nothing more than to win their division and advance to the postseason.
If that's not the formula for riveting September baseball, what is?
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