Previewing today's key game
The Twins and White Sox meet in Chicago tonight to decide the American League Central Division in just the fourth one-game playoff in American League history. The first occurred in 1948, when the Indians beat the Red Sox to win the pennant. The second was the famous Bucky Dent game between the Yankees and Red Sox on Oct. 2, 1978, that gave New York the AL East title. The other came on Oct. 2, 1995, when the Mariners beat the Angels 9-1 behind a complete game by Randy Johnson to win the AL West. Tonight the AL Central takes center stage, and Ken Griffey Jr., who went 0 for 3 with a walk for Seattle in the 1995 contest, will likely start in center for the White Sox, making him the first man to play in two one-game playoffs in the American League.
It's a fitting conclusion for these two teams, as the Twins and White Sox not only posted matching 88-74 records but identical 53-28 home and 35-46 road marks. They also had roughly equivalent Pythagorean records, as determined by their runs scored and allowed. The Twins have a slightly more productive offense (0.14 more runs per game), but the Sox balance that out with an even slighter advantage on the mound (0.9 fewer runs allowed). The Twins have won 10 of the 18 head-to-head contests this year, but the White Sox have outscored the Twins in those games by the slightest possible margin, 100-99. It doesn't get much closer than that.
So, after 162 games, what could possibly break this tie? The answer could be something as simple as home field advantage. The 18-game swing between their identical home and road records was the most extreme in the league. Taking a closer look at their 18 previous games against each other this year, the Twins went 8-1 against the ChiSox at the Metrodome, while the White Sox went 7-2 against the Twins in Chicago. A coin flip on Sept. 12 determined that a one-game playoff between these two teams would take place at Chicago's U.S. Cellular Field. That flip of the coin could very well wind up deciding this division.
This would normally be Kevin Slowey's turn in the rotation, but he's nursing a bruised wrist, so righty Blackburn will take his place on an extra day's rest. Blackburn was a great discovery for Minnesota this year as a 26-year-old rookie, but overall he's only been the team's fourth-best starter. Even more discouragingly, he has a 5.20 ERA on the road and a 5.67 ERA in five starts against the White Sox this season.
Chicago manager Ozzie Guillen has used just four starters since Sept. 18, and the 23-year-old sophomore Danks, who will be pitching on three day's rest, is one of them. The lefty has thrown the same number of innings (187) as Blackburn this season while allowing 40 fewer hits and seven fewer home runs and striking out 62 more hitters, but he, too, has some troubling splits. Contrary to his team's overall performance, Danks has been better on the road, but still has a fine 3.96 ERA at home. The catch is that he also has a 7.91 ERA in four starts against the Twins this year. One could argue that his ERA against Minnesota is inflated by one disastrous start in early April (seven earned runs in 2.1 innings), but in his three starts against the Twins since then, Danks has posted a 5.29 ERA, which is slightly better than Blackburn's mark 5.67 against Chicago.
It's worth noting that neither Danks nor Blackburn had ever thrown as many as 161 innings in a single professional season. Teams prefer not to extend their young pitchers more than 30 innings beyond their previous year's total. The White Sox and Twins may be trailing that movement, and the effects of blowing past those extra 30 innings generally don't show up until the following year, but it seems a sure thing that the bullpens will play an important role tonight. Both pens are well-rested. Guillen used four relievers to secure Monday's 8-2 win over the Tigers, but none threw more than one inning, and the only one of the four who also pitched on Sunday was lefty Matt Thornton, who threw just four pitches on Monday. The Twins, of course, were off yesterday, so Ron Gardenhire has everyone fully available for tonight's do-or-die game.
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