ChiSox, Tigers need to win division

BY foxsports • September 23, 2012

It’s an archaic notion, straight out of 1969, 1993 or at least 2011.

Win the division or go home.

No wild card. No second wild card. No safety net, to borrow the radioactive political term. The American League Central is old school: one bid, two teams, 10 games left.

The new wild-card round has transformed races across baseball … except for this outlier. In every other division, the second-place team is a viable contender for a wild card. Baltimore (AL East) has the AL’s first spot, one game ahead of Oakland (AL West). In the National League, Atlanta (East) is close to clinching the first wild card, St. Louis (Central) holds the second, and Los Angeles (West) has hope — albeit faint — of catching the Cardinals.

Not so in baseball’s Big Ten, where the Chicago White Sox hold a one-game lead over the Detroit Tigers. Winner to the first round, loser to the first tee.

“Right now,” Tigers manager Jim Leyland said Sunday, “these are playoff-type games.”

Yet, neither the Tigers nor the White Sox look ready for October. By record, at least, the AL Central champion will be the worst first-place team in baseball.

The Minnesota Twins, with one of the majors’ lowliest pitching staffs, swept the Tigers in a Sunday doubleheader in Detroit. The Tigers lost the nightcap, 2-1, after producing only one extra-base hit: Miguel Cabrera’s one-out double in the first inning. Minnesota starter P.J. Walters, who entered with a 6.39 ERA, held Detroit to a lonely run on five hits in six innings.

The White Sox, meanwhile, are 1-5 since defeating the Tigers last Monday in what appeared to be a decisive blow in the division race. They’ve scored an average of 1.6 runs during their past five games, all defeats, including a weekend sweep in Anaheim. Adam Dunn has one home run in September. It only seems like Kevin Youkilis has one hit in September. And they begin a four-game series Thursday against the Rays, the AL’s top pitching club, with Cy Young favorite David Price set to pitch the finale.

Chicago has the AL’s seventh-best record. Detroit has the eighth. In a 14-team league, that’s the definition of mediocrity. But following a careful review of the baseball rules and advanced probability theory, it appears that one of them has to go to the playoffs. (No truth to the rumor that the Tampa Bay Rays tried to become the Green Bay Rays in an effort to qualify for the AL Central title.)

“It’s always been our goal to win the division,” Tigers catcher Alex Avila said. “The way the teams in the East were playing, they just kept winning games and it was hard for us to keep up as far as the wild card. We’ve always had our goal on the division. If we keep plugging away, we’ve got a shot to get it.”

Even before the inaugural wild-card round — scheduled for Friday, Oct. 5 — the change in postseason format can be called a success. Outside of the AL Central, teams that would have been afterthoughts under the old system are still competitive. In the NL wild-card standings, the Cardinals, Brewers, Dodgers and Diamondbacks are six or more games behind the Braves. They would be on the verge of elimination if it weren’t for the second wild card.

Frankly, the No. 2 wild card is the NL’s lone source of pennant-race intrigue. The Cincinnati Reds and San Francisco Giants clinched division titles over the weekend, and the Washington Nationals (with a comfortable lead on Atlanta) secured their postseason berth last week. If this were last year, we’d need to pass the time with the always-popular discussion: So, who should this team want to face in the first round?

The lack of divisional drama in the NL is one consequence of the league’s stratification. Competitively speaking, the haves and have-nots are further apart than they have been in a generation. For the first time in the wild-card era, the NL is on pace to have two teams over .600 and three below .400 in the same year. The AL is more balanced, with all of its teams compressed between winning percentages of .600 and .400.

“It’s felt like (the playoffs) for weeks,” Avila said. “There’s an extra spot. You can tell, the last few weeks, with the nail-biter games that have been going on — not only between us and whomever we’re playing, and whomever the White Sox are playing. But Baltimore, Tampa Bay, the Yankees — it’s like the playoffs have already started for most of us.”

The White Sox and Tigers are average teams, but the outcome of their race could have far-reaching implications on the heated AL MVP debate. Angels center fielder Mike Trout is having an ordinary September (.802 OPS) but likely will remain a favorite of sabermetric-minded voters. Cabrera, though, can win over those within the Baseball Writers’ Association of America who believe elevating a team into the playoffs is a chief qualification for the award. If the Tigers reach the postseason — and the Angels do not — Cabrera’s case becomes more compelling.

Cabrera begins the week ahead or tied in the Triple Crown categories — the latest in a season anyone has done so since Carl Yastrzemski won it in 1967, according to STATS LLC. Cabrera’s most comfortable advantage is in RBI (133 to 123, over Josh Hamilton). Cabrera and Hamilton are tied for the AL home run lead at 42, but Hamilton hasn’t played since last Tuesday because of sinus problems; Cabrera will probably have more plate appearances over the rest of the year.

The stiffest challenge to Cabrera’s Triple Crown bid may come in the batting race from AL Central rival Joe Mauer. A three-time batting champion, Mauer is in a virtual tie with Trout at .323 — not far behind Cabrera at .331.

As outlandish as this sounds, the odds may actually favor Cabrera’s bid at history. He has exceptional career numbers against the four starters he’s due to face during this week’s series with Kansas City: Luke Hochevar (1.342 OPS), Bruce Chen (1.430), Jeremy Guthrie (1.143) and Luis Mendoza (1.194).

His tentative opposition for the final six games: Scott Diamond, P.J. Walters, Liam Hendriks of the Twins, followed by Guthrie (again), Mendoza (again) and Royals rookie Jake Odorizzi. No Cy Young candidates among the group.

For now, though, Cabrera and the Tigers are focused on the AL Central race. The records aren’t pretty, but the finality is real — a throwback division in this avant-garde season.