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September 24, 2012

What You Need to Know

Monday, September 24

by Daniel Rathman

The Weekend Takeaway
In last week’s On the Beat, Tigers manager Jim Leyland told John Perrotto that his team is “definitely looking at how the White Sox are doing.” On Sunday, the out-of-town scoreboard at Comerica Park showed the home nine their desired result for the fifth day in a row. But the Tigers failed to take advantage.

Hosting a doubleheader against the fourth-place Twins, Detroit had a chance to return to the top of the American League Central for the first time since July 22. A door that, six days ago, seemed to be slammed shut was thrown wide open by Chicago’s untimely skid. Instead, Minnesota lived every September pretender’s dream, playing spoiler by pounding out a 10-4 victory in the afternoon, then eking out a 2-1 nail-biter in extra innings under the lights.

Miguel Cabrera did his part in both games, delivering doubles that plated the Tigers’ first run in the matinee and their only tally in the nightcap. Delmon Young—who went a combined 1-for-8, including two strikeouts and a double-play ball with two on and one out in the sixth inning of game two—did not.

Max Scherzer, pitching through arm fatigue and without his usual fastball velocity in game one, held the Twins scoreless for five innings, but Phil Coke poured gasoline on his fire in the sixth, and Darin Downs’ meltdown put the game out of reach in the eighth. Later, rookie Drew Smyly turned in 4 1/3 solid innings and gave his offense plenty of opportunities to come through against P.J. Walters, who came into the day with a 6.39 ERA. But the bats, save for Cabrera’s first-inning double, stayed quiet, and the defense—an omnipresent Achilles’ heel—enabled the visitors to even the score.

With the Tigers still leading, 1-0, in the top of the fifth inning of game two, Trevor Plouffe drew a walk and Matt Carson singled. Valuing a high-percentage chance to tie the game over an opportunity go for the jugular, Ron Gardenhire had Pedro Florimon put down a sacrifice bunt. Then, the fun started.

Smyly fielded Florimon’s bunt, but he threw the ball away, loading the bases with nobody out. The Tigers retired the lead runner at the plate on Ben Revere’s fielder’s choice, bringing Jamey Carroll to the plate with the bases still full and one away. As Al Alburquerque relieved Smyly, Detroit was handed a chance to escape unscathed. Carroll hit a sharp grounder to third, Cabrera threw home, and all that stood in the way of an inning-ending and lead-saving twin killing was a clean relay from Alex Avila to Prince Fielder. Nope: Avila’s throw sailed into right field, allowing the tying run to score—and only an outstanding effort by Brennan Boesch, and a TOOTBLAN moment from Revere, prevented further damage.

Five innings later, with the score still 1-1, Carroll took care of that. His RBI single off Jose Valverde came after four shutout innings from the Twins bullpen, and Glen Perkins then set the Tigers down in order in the bottom of the 10th

The Twins—from Joe Mauer’s 3-for-4 outing as the designated hitter in game one, to the pitching staff’s stellar effort in game two—deserved to come away with both wins. But they were 62-89, 16 games behind the White Sox, and long eliminated from playoff contention. They had the worst team ERA in the American League at 4.84, and threw a journeyman pitcher with no wins since May 22 in the finale. The Tigers, armed with two of the junior circuit’s best hitters, had no business scoring only five runs in 19 innings. But they did, and so they remain in second place.

Amazingly, for all the opportunities the Tigers have already squandered, plenty more await them. Their math has gone from multivariable calculus to simple algebra. All they must do to force a playoff or win the division outright is outplay the White Sox by a game or two the rest of the way.

As I wrote last week, Detroit’s road to the finish line is easier than Chicago’s. The Tigers host the Royals for four, then visit the Twins for three and play their last three in Kansas City. The White Sox could coast through a pair of three-game series against the Indians, but in between, they will welcome the Rays—who have won five in a row and are the only better-than-.500 opponent on either docket—to U.S. Cellular Field for four.

Both teams send their aces to the mound tonight, as the race that nobody wants to win continues. Justin Verlander takes on Luke Hochevar and the Royals (7:05 p.m. ET); then, an hour later, Chris Sale battles Zach McAllister and the Indians (8:10 p.m. ET). After once again, briefly, becoming the favorites on Saturday night, the Tigers are back to being the underdogs, and the season-long marathon is now a sprint.

The bad news is that the Tigers have, in Leyland’s words, been “underachievers” for 152 games. The good news: Few will remember that if they find a way to overachieve during the last 10.

What to Watch for on Monday

  • The Brewers have won two of the first three games in their series with the Nationals in Washington D.C., but they still trail the Cardinals by 2 ½ games for the senior circuit’s second wild-card spot. With St. Louis playing its next three games in Houston, Milwaukee likely must keep winning to avoid falling further behind. Ron Roenicke’s team will close out its four-game tilt at Nationals Park this afternoon, sending Marco Estrada to the hill to look horns with Jordan Zimmermann. A sixth-round pick in the 2005 draft, the 29-year-old Estrada made his major-league debut with the Nationals in 2008, before the Brewers claimed him off waivers in February 2010. He has come a long way since then, and ranks fourth in the National League with a 4.63 K:BB since the All-Star break (1:05 p.m. ET). 
  • Only one game separates the first-place Yankees from the second-place Orioles with 10 left to play, and Baltimore can creep closer or even retake the division lead in today’s doubleheader against the Blue Jays. After holding serve at Fenway Park this weekend, by matching New York’s two-of-three effort versus Oakland, Buck Showalter’s squad hosts Toronto in a four-game set that includes this evening’s makeup game from a rainout on Aug. 26. It’ll be Henderson Alvarez and Steve Johnson in the matinee, followed by Ricky Romero and Wei-Yin Chen in game two—a scary proposition considering that the last two games started by the rookie southpaw have both gone at least 14 innings. No one is happier to see the Blue Jays in town than Chris Davis, who has gone 18-for-45 (.400 average) and smacked seven of his 26 home runs against Toronto (4:05 p.m.).
  • After narrowly avoiding a sweep in the Bronx, the A’s will finish off their brutal road trip in Arlington, and they enter the four-game date with the first-place Rangers holding a 2 ½-game edge over the Angels. Rookie Daniel Straily gets the ball for Oakland in the opener, taking the rotation spot vacated by Brett Anderson, who is out for the rest of the regular season with a strained oblique. After helping the A’s to victory in each of his first four starts, three of which were quality outings, Straily struggled in a loss to the Orioles on Sept. 16, issuing five walks and recording only one strikeout in 4 2/3 innings of four-run ball. He has not yet faced the Rangers this season, but will need to work on keeping the ball in the yard—a notable weakness, considering that Straily has served up eight homers in just 28 1/3 frames—to outduel Derek Holland tonight (8:05 p.m. ET).
  • Justin Upton scuffled throughout the spring and summer, but the Diamondbacks right fielder has found a groove in September, hitting .319 with five doubles, a triple, and four home runs. The 25-year-old enters Monday’s series finale at Coors Field riding a season-high 10-game hitting streak, which includes all five of those two-baggers and may lead general manager Kevin Towers to think twice about trading Upton this coming winter. He will try to back Trevor Cahill as the D’backs wrap up their series against Tyler Chatwood and the Rockies (8:40 p.m. ET).

Daniel Rathman is an author of Baseball Prospectus. 
Click here to see Daniel's other articles. You can contact Daniel by clicking here

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