Two down, one to go. The Twins essentially needed a sweep of the White Sox this week to have a chance to win the AL Central. Effective starts from Scott Baker and Nick Blackburn helped them take the first two of those must-win games of the showdown series this week at the Metrodome.
Whereas Tuesday night’s game was a romp thanks to the slugging exploits of Jason Kubel and Delmon Young, Wednesday’s affair was a thriller in which the Twins scored three runs in the first two innings and sweated out the rest of the contest. The Twins’ pen, such a problem this season, provided four shut-out innings last night, highlighted by Jose Mijares tossing a perfect eighth. Mijares, who suffered a broken elbow in an off-season car accident that moved him off of prospect lists, has allowed two hits and no walks in seven appearances, and has pitched the eighth inning in the Twins’ last two close wins. The heavy southpaw has been a godsend for a bullpen that has struggled all year, and especially late in the season, to shut teams down in the seventh and eighth innings.
The Twins’ three runs last night illustrated what has slowly become the defining trait of this organization. They don’t often start the year with their best team on the field, but they do figure it out over the course of the season. Both Denard Span and Alexi Casilla reached base twice in the first two innings, and the pair scored or drove in two of the Twins’ three runs in those frames. For a team that has struggled at times to put enough runners on in front of MVP candidates Justin Morneau and Joe Mauer, the work of Span and Casilla has made this a viable offense.
Since Span took over the leadoff spot on July 22-he’s led off in every game since-the Twins have scored 5.5 runs per game. Prior to that, mostly with Carlos Gomez leading off, the Twins had scored 4.9 runs per game. Ninety points of OBP has that effect. It may end up that the Michael Cuddyer injury, which created a job for Span, was the most important thing that happened to this team all season. As long as he’s not asked to play center field-despite good speed, Span is a very awkward outfielder, comparable to Alex Cole in some ways-Span is a good player.
Similarly, the White Sox’s five runs in the series tell you what they are: desperately reliant on home runs. The Sox have scored two runs on outs and three on home runs in the five games. Strangely, all five have been driven in by Ken Griffey Jr. (with no RBI in one case). Griffey has largely been a disappointment since coming over in a much-hyped trade-deadline deal. Last night, the Sox had nine hits and three walks, but came away with just two runs. They’re about as one-dimensional an offense as you could possibly create:
(Here’s a fun fact, courtesy of Clay Davenport: the White Sox could become the eighth team in history-all since 1989-to play a full season and have their team leader in triples hit just two. The White Sox have just 13 triples, with Alexei Ramirez and Jermaine Dye tied for the team lead with a pair each. There’s a park effect there, but it’s also an indication of the shape of the Sox offense. The Sox are 10th in the AL in doubles-plus-triples, and have out-homered the four teams below them by at least 49 bombs each.)
The White Sox hit home runs, and that’s about it. They score nearly half of their runs on homers. No other AL team is above 37 percent. Even the walk total is a bit deceptive; the Sox have a handful of guys who draw a lot of walks in Jim Thome, Nick Swisher, and Carlos Quentin, and they also run some of the game’s most notorious hackers out there in Ramirez, Juan Uribe, and A.J. Pierzynski. It’s just a weird offense, and a very strange team to watch, but they are a testament to the value of the long ball: if you’re only going to do one thing well, that’s not the worst one thing to pick. The White Sox have a dead-average .260 EqA, and the shape of the lineup doesn’t seem to be affecting its output-the EqA report shows that they’ve scored exactly as many runs as their run elements would predict.
The outcomes of the first two games mean that tonight’s contest takes on a season’s worth of importance to the two squads. Right now, the Sox still have an edge on the Twins-they hold a 61.6 percent chance of winning the division, and the Twins are at 38.4 percent. That number doesn’t mean much, though, because we know that tonight one of the teams has to win, and the other lose.
If White Sox win: White Sox 86.4 percent, Twins 13.6 percent
If Twins win: Twins 62.6 percent, White Sox 37.4 percent
This may be the biggest game of the season in terms of playoff expectation; it’s certainly the biggest game left between contenders, short of a potential one-game playoff next week. If the White Sox win, they become about a 7-1 favorite to hang on and win the the division. If they lose, the Twins swing to about a 3-2 favorite; I suspect that’s even a bit low, as the system isn’t capturing that this Twins team is better than the “full-season” version that was leading off Carlos Gomez, playing Michael Cuddyer, and starting Livan Hernandez.
In any case, tonight’s game is must-see baseball. With Gavin Floyd facing off against Kevin Slowey, the pitching matchup is even, although the Sox could benefit from Slowey being a fly-ball pitcher, one who’s also a bit homer-prone. They also have a very fresh bullpen, with neither Matt Thornton nor Bobby Jenks having pitched since Sunday. Really, though, the game is a coin flip, and one with tens of millions of dollars on the line.
There’s a potentially complicated situation developing in the skies above New York. Rain is in the forecast not just for tonight, but through the weekend. This could wreak havoc with the schedule, and while the Mets and Marlins can wait out delays at Shea all weekend, the Cubs can’t stick around quite as long; they have to play tonight so they can get to Milwaukee for their weekend series with the Brewers.
If tonight’s game doesn’t get played-and note that the rain is supposed to get worse later in the evening towards midnight and beyond-the Cubs will actually have two makeup games to play, one in Houston and one in New York. Now, you can hand-wave that Houston game because the Astros‘ tragic number is two, but the problem is that if a Mets game doesn’t get played, the chance increases that the Cubs/Astros game will have to be played. If the Astros run the table-they close with the Braves over the weekend on the heels of tonight’s game with the equally irrelevant Reds-then the Mets or Brewers would have to win two games to eliminate them. Would you put it past these squads to miss that mark?
Even if the Astros drop out of the picture, the Cubs could be forced to fly back to New York on Monday to play a game that means nothing to them, and everything to the opposition and a third party. This actually gives them incentive, of a sort, this weekend; by taking out the Brewers, they can help the Mets clinch a berth in the postseason and obviate the need for a trip to the Big Apple-and a second “last regular-season game at Shea”-on Monday. It could be even more complicated than that if the Mets play poorly (or have a bunch of games rained out) and the Astros play well; the Cubs could be in a situation where they have great reason to not win Saturday and/or Sunday’s contests, as doing so could cause them to have to fly around the country playing makeups in advance of their post-season opener Wednesday. That’s the nightmare scenario for MLB: a Cubs team that has significant incentive to lose to the Brewers. There’s even a degenerate case in which the need for makeups and subsequent playoff games leaves the NL post-season picture a muddled mess into midweek.
This is all speculation, of course, and what is most likely is that we’ll see two teams having to play a baseball game in completely inappropriate conditions this evening. Should tonight’s game be rained out though, it will make the Cubs’ endgame a bit more complicated than Lou Piniella would like.