Posted: Tuesday August 29, 2006 2:45PM; Updated: Wednesday August 30, 2006 11:13PM
The Twins are unbeaten in Johan Santana's last nine starts.
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E.M. Swift will periodically answer questions from SI.com users in his mailbag.
There are pennant races, and then there are pennant races.
The National League wild-card derby is an example of a close race that is existentially meaningless, like the debate over Pluto's loss of planetary status, since whichever desultory team emerges from the pack will soon be knocked into postseason oblivion. Like Pluto, the planet or asteroid, at the end of the day they're toast.
Baseball fans thirsty for a good pennant race, a legit battle among potential world champions, should keep their eyes glued to the AL Central this September. Three of the five best teams in baseball are duking it out for two spots.
Actually, no need to wait until September. The final leg of the race begins Wednesday at Yankee Stadium, where the team with the best record in baseball, the Detroit Tigers, takes on the playoff-bound Yanks in the first of a three-game set. Next into the Bronx? The Minnesota Twins, who have baseball's best record since June 10 (49-20) and are now five behind the Tigers and a half game up on the Chicago White Sox for the AL's lone wild-card spot. The ChiSox are, of course, the defending world champs and have a veteran pitching staff that's built for September. One of those three teams will miss the postseason: Tigers, ChiSox or Twins. Which one will it be?
The tea leaves are difficult to read. The Tigers have the five-game lead, but they're also in a tailspin, having lost 13 of their last 19 games. They have the most difficult schedule ahead of them: 18 of their last 31 games are against teams with a winning record. (The Twins play 16 games against clubs with winning records, the White Sox 15.) Both Minnesota and Detroit have 17 home games ahead; the ChiSox only 14. But Chicago is done with New York.
So the schedule-makers have done their job. No team has a clear advantage there. If Detroit can play one-game-under-.500 ball over the last five weeks, it will finish with 97 wins. But Chicago has only to go 19-13 to reach 97 wins. The Twins? 19-14. Not exactly the impossible dream.
Who, then, is the odd team out? Which of these worthy clubs will spend October at home? Scotty Bowman, hockey's winningest coach, once told me that it didn't matter where you'd finished going into the playoffs. The important thing was how you were playing. Well, guess what? The playoffs have essentially started in the AL Central, and the Twins are playing great.
I see the Twins as a lock. For the last 2˝ months they've been baseball's best team. Joe Mauer and Justin Morneau are having breakout years offensively and are not about to do a September swoon. They have a solid closer in Joe Nathan, baseball's best pitcher in Johan Santana (15-5, 3.01) and they're about to get their Rookie of the Year candidate, Francisco Liriano (12-3, 2.19 era), back off the DL, where he's been since Aug. 8. If Liriano comes back at 100 percent, this team could go all the way. The Twins also face the worst team in baseball, the Kansas City Royals, seven more times. All season long people have been asking if the Tigers are for real. It's a question that should have been posed of the Twins.
The Tigers? I think this series against the Yankees will tell the tale. The starting pitching, which is responsible for getting them this far, is suddenly suspect. Jeremy Bonderman hasn't won a start in a month. And three other starters, Justin Verlander, Nate Robertson and Zach Minor, are a combined 2-9 since Aug. 8. Only 41-year-old Kenny Rogers is at the top of his game. If Detroit, which is only 26-29 this year against the top six teams in the AL, can take two of three against the Yanks, that momentum will take them right through September. Jim Leyland's young team will have righted the ship. If the Tigers are swept by the Yanks, however, you'll be able to smell the panic on the streets of the Motor City, and I look for both the ChiSox and the Twins to reel in the front-runners.
If Detroit takes one of three? Stay tuned, folks. That's what September pennant races are all about.