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September 29, 2009
If you want to hear God laugh…
To: Christina KahrlThe rain clouds that turned today's column into a web version of Rain Delay Theatre didn't come without a silver lining, because now we get a division race plus two critical games with less than a week to go in one marathon day at the ballpark. The Twins need to win three of four in Detroit to tie the AL Central going into the last weekend, and by the end of today we're going to have a very good idea of whether they can do so. Anything less would leave them needing help from the White Sox on the season's final weekend to reach the postseason.
They can certainly take three. They can also sweep, or be swept. Everything is possible, because baseball won't have it any other way, and the next four games of any team are essentially unpredictable. We see bad teams jump up and sweep good ones all year long, so to guess at what might happen between two evenly matched, if flawed, teams is folly. This lesson comes to us directly from the Yankees/Red Sox season series, and is one I need to remember a week from now when my job is reduced to making predictions about four best-of-fives.
Without getting into results, there are certain keys to success for each team. The Tigers have to maximize the innings and run prevention they get from their starters, especially in today's doubleheader. The dropoff from Rick Porcello and Justin Verlander to the rest of the series is steep, and the dropoff from those two to the bullpen is steep, so they need quality starts deep into the game from both. Porcello hasn't been an innings guy, so for him, this means doing six. Verlander, however, could and should be in for a long night; if the Tigers take care of business, he wouldn't have to pitch again until next Wednesday, so a long leash is warranted.
The Twins have to keep the ball in the park with their fly-ball staff pitching to a team of fly-ball hitters. The Twins don't walk people, and the Tigers aren't notably selective, so this is going to be about what happens after contact. Can the Tigers generate the long balls that are the lifeblood of their offense? The Tigers are tied for 10th in team Equivalent Average 10th in batting average, 10th in walks drawn, 12th in stolen bases, 13th in doubles plus triples. They're seventh in homers, which is their only positive trait as an offensive ballclub. The Twins want to get their starters, primarily mid-rotation strike-throwers, to the sixth and turn the game over to their bullpen. They're strong at the back, and as BP intern Dan Wade pointed out after I wrote about the Twins' pen last week, they've been bolstered in the middle by the apparent return to form of Jesse Crain, who has 25 strikeouts against 10 unintentional walks in 29
I don't know what will happen in the series, but I know that today's events at Comerica will likely determine the eventual AL Central winner. This is nearly 30 percent of the remaining schedule, the Tigers' two best starters and two of the Twins' top three on the mound, all in one day. It doesn't get a whole lot better than this. In a September that once looked like a dud, we're going to get at least one day of high drama.
The other active race is the NL wild-card chase, where the Giants and Marlins have given way to the hard-charging Braves, the last team with a chance to catch the Rockies. With a 4-0 win last night over the Marlins, the Braves have won 16 of 19 games since a humiliating sweep at the hands of the Reds in early September. They've allowed just 55 runs in that time, fewer than three per game, and while some of that is the schedule-the Braves have gone 11-1 against the Astros, Mets, and Nationals in this stretch-it's also a credit to a terrific run-prevention team. Jair Jurrjens has allowed just three runs in 29 innings over his last four starts, pounding the ball low in the strike zone to great effect.
I am certain, even noting their significant holes on offense, that the Braves are one of the eight best teams in baseball right now. They might be one of the five best, and I'm not completely convinced they wouldn't be the best team in the National League's post-season slate if they could get there. Their top eight pitchers are the best top eight in baseball, even better than the Cardinals' (with their top two starters) or Dodgers (with their ridiculously good bullpen). That doesn't mean anything, of course-you need to be one of the best over 162 games to qualify, and at that, playing the best baseball in September doesn't necessarily always mean winning in October. But right now, the Braves are a team that would make October that much more interesting, certainly a bit more than the two teams squaring off in downtown Detroit as you read this.
Speaking of which, time to watch some baseball. Back tomorrow with more on all the relevant games from today.