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September 18, 2012

What You Need to Know

Tuesday, September 18

by Daniel Rathman

The Monday Takeaway
Yesterday’s makeup game between the Tigers and White Sox wasn’t exactly a must-win for the visitors, but it sure felt that way. Detroit Free Press columnist Jeff Seidel wrote, “today means everything.” MLive.com beat writer Chris Iott added that a loss would leave Tigers fans “doing math.” After a 5-4 defeat at U.S. Cellular Field, the doomsday bells are ringing, and there’s been a run on calculators across the Motor City.

Not really, of course, but with three games now separating Chicago from Detroit, and only 16 left to play, the Tigers’ outlook is beginning to look grim. The team that reeled in Prince Fielder this past offseason and saw its 2009 trade acquisitions, Austin Jackson and Max Scherzer, blossom into elite contributors, now faces an elimination number of 14 in the American League Central and 11 in the wild card.

Jackson, who was scratched from Sunday’s Tigers lineup with an ankle injury, returned to the leadoff spot on Monday. Fielder, mired in a 3-for-29 slump with just one extra-base hit since Sept. 9, chipped in a double as part of a 2-for-4 afternoon. And Delmon Young drove in two runs to help Detroit to a 3-0 lead through three innings. It wasn't enough.

The White Sox rallied to tie the game in the bottom of the fourth, when Doug Fister hit Gordon Beckham with the bases loaded and two out, and then served up a two-run single to Dewayne Wise. Detroit pulled back ahead, 4-3, on an RBI single by Young in the top of the fifth. But that edge quickly turned into a 5-4 deficit, on an RBI fielder’s choice by Dayan Viciedo that became a two-run debacle thanks to a throwing error by Omar Infante. That miscue proved fateful, as after an eventful third, fourth, and fifth, the score went unchanged the rest of the way.

Robin Ventura’s relievers made sure of that by backing starter Jose Quintana, who was chased after allowing four runs on seven hits and two walks in just four innings, with five shutout frames. Rookie Nate Jones improved to 8-0 by tossing 2 2/3 innings, before giving way to Donnie Veal, Brett Myers, Matt Thornton, and Addison Reed, who each took care of business without allowing a single Tiger to reach base. Those five relievers needed only 51 pitches to record the final 15 outs, mainly because 38 (75 percent) of them went for strikes, including 10 swings-and-misses that produced five total strikeouts for the staff. Jim Leyland’s crew matched those zeros—albeit less efficiently, using 79 pitches and 48 strikes—but the damage off Fister rendered their efforts moot.

Few had faith in this White Sox team back in late-March, when the Baseball Prospectus crew made its annual predictions. Most picked Chicago to place third or fourth in the Central, and 26 of the 27 projections had Detroit atop the standings, with the Royals earning the honor in the other. But Chris Sale has emerged as an ace, Jake Peavy’s shoulder has held up, Paul Konerko has been as productive as ever, and A.J. Pierzynski has ridden the year-of-the-catcher wave to a comeback campaign, silencing the skeptics and giving the White Sox an opportunity to seize their first division crown since 2008.

This race is not over, as the Tigers—most notably Young—know firsthand. A lot can change during the final tenth of the season, and Detroit’s schedule is a bit friendlier than Chicago’s. While the White Sox head out for a six-game swing through Kansas City and Anaheim, and later host Tampa Bay, the Tigers will return to Comerica Park for a 10-game homestand, which begins with a three-game set versus the A’s, the only contender left on their docket. The White Sox have three more games against the Royals and six more against the Indians, while the Tigers finish the campaign with a home-and-home sequence versus Minnesota and Kansas City, taking on the former six times and the latter seven.

Unfortunately, those Central division bottomfeeders have been a thorn in the Tigers’ side all season. Detroit won 12 of its 18 head-to-head meetings with the White Sox, but it has sputtered to an 11-19 mark versus the West—including a 2-2 record and 5.56 team ERA against the Athletics—and a 22-19 ledger against the rest of its division rivals. The White Sox have gone 27-18 in their other Central battles and 20-9 against the West, a difference that accounts for much of the current gap in the standings.

Now, the Tigers face a tall task. If the White Sox go 8-8, they would have to go 11-5 just to force a playoff. That’s the math Iott warned fans about before Monday’s game.

Said Leyland, after the costly loss: “You’ve got to win games.” Said Fielder, parroting his manager: “You’ve got to win.” But as the late Detroit skipper Sparky Anderson once observed, “Players have two things to do: play and keep their mouths shut.” With the playoffs fast approaching, the Tigers would be wise to heed his advice.

What to Watch for on Tuesday

  • The Athletics begin their arduous, 10-game road trip with a 4 ½-game buffer on the third-place Angels in the wild-card race and 16 games left to play. Their first stop: Comerica Park, where A.J. Griffin, who blanked the Angels for eight innings on Sept. 12, gets the ball against Max Scherzer, who may be the hottest pitcher in the American League. Don’t expect many free passes in tonight’s opener, as Griffin hasn’t walked more than two batters in any of his first 11 starts, and Scherzer has held his opponents to two or fewer in each of his last nine. The Tigers righty beat Oakland at the Coliseum with 6 1/3 innings of two-run ball on May 10, but the A’s are 9-2 behind their 24-year-old rookie (7:05 p.m. ET).
  • Meanwhile, in the Bronx, Andy Pettitte returns to the mound after missing more than two months with a fractured left ankle. The 40-year-old southpaw was rock-solid in nine starts before suffering the injury, logging a 3.22 ERA and a 59-to-15 K:BB over 58 2/3 innings, but he has not faced the Blue Jays since July 3, 2010. Pettitte’s opponent, Ricky Romero, has been in a tailspin since mid-June, but he did hold the Yankees to two runs in seven innings on Aug. 28. In fact, oddly enough, half of Romero’s four quality starts since the All-Star break have come against New York. Alex Rodriguez is just 6-for-28 (.214 average) lifetime with no home runs versus Romero, and maintaining that ownage will be crucial if the 27-year-old lefty is to earn his first win since June 22 (7:05 p.m. ET).
  • And we’re not done with the early slate yet. The Dodgers, like the A’s, are embarking on a challenging tour, which begins in the nation’s capital and continues in Cincinnati later this week. Don Mattingly’s team stayed in the wild-card chase by splitting a four-game set with the Cardinals this past weekend, but with the long-shot Pirates and Brewers going head-to-head, it needs to avoid losing ground on this road trip. Former National League East rivals Shane Victorino (4-for-13, three doubles) and Hanley Ramirez (7-for-15) both have excellent career numbers against Washington starter Jordan Zimmermann, and they’ll try fuel the offense to back Aaron Harang in game one (7:05 p.m. ET).
  • Still 2 ½ games behind the second-place Orioles for the American League’s last playoff berth, time is running out for the Angels to make their move. Now, the Rangers come to town for three games to kick off a nine-game homestand that may decide the Halos’ fate. Jered Weaver got back on track by outdueling Brett Anderson last Thursday with seven scoreless innings, and he’ll look to deliver a similar effort in tonight’s matchup with Ryan Dempster, who is currently riding a five-game winning streak. Meanwhile, to extend that surge to six, Dempster will need to find a way to slow down Albert Pujols, who has torched him to the tune of a 20-for-57 (.351 average) line with five doubles, seven homers, 11 walks, and only two strikeouts. If you’re scoring at home, that’s a 1.250 OPS, more than 200 points higher than the next-best mark (Lance Berkman, 1.032) among players with at least 50 career plate appearances versus Dempster (10:05 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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