Five things we learned from this weekend's key Tigers-Twins series
First it was the Tigers, but now the Twins are feeling pinched after losing
Tigers will rely on battle-tested veterans to produce down the stretch
Twins can't use injuries to Justin Morneau and Joe Crede as excuses
MINNEAPOLIS -- Five things I learned while covering what walked, sounded and looked like a pennant race, however brief, in Detroit's 6-2 victory Sunday over disparage, er, division rival Minnesota:
1. The Tigers and the rest of the AL Central are ... grrrrr-reat!?
What was looking like baseball's only legitimate September chase seemed a little less so after Detroit won what it hopes was its Metrodome farewell. OK, so there's always a chance game No. 163 could be played there, in a potentially ugly Oct. 5 schedule conflict with Monday Night Football, i.e., Green Bay at Minnesota, i.e., Brett Favre's "Revenge? Who, Me?'' catharsis. But that's getting ahead of ourselves. The AL Central race isn't over yet, but when the Tigers' magic number and the Twins' number of remaining Dome games both are falling, it's getting close.
Depending, of course, on which team wants it least. That's the impression many fans have of the division, the only one in baseball without an 80-game winner -- but two 88-game losers. It's a flawed group top to bottom, one so shaky that the White Sox, who went white-flag on 2009 a couple of weeks ago, lately have regretted that recusing. They cast themselves as spoilers while leading-man roles still could be had.
"It's not a bad division. I don't care what people say about the division and people's records,'' Tigers lefthander Nate Robertson told me Sunday afternoon, after he picked up the victory in his 200th career appearance -- but only fourth start of this season. "Baseball, there's nothing really bad. There's just consistency and less consistency. That's what baseball is. Other teams have been a little bit more consistent, but that doesn't mean we're bad. They [the Twins] have great players there. We've got great players here. Chicago has great players, Kansas City's got great players. Cleveland's got great players. Some teams have been more consistent.''
Great? Aw, don't stop him, Robertson was on a roll. "We've been consistent enough this year,'' the pitcher said. "But there are no bad teams -- I don't believe that. I know how hard it was to get up here as a player -- there are no bad players in baseball. It's real easy to sit there and make that judgment from a couch or something. But we know how tough it is up here and how tough it is to win baseball games, and it's been a grind for everybody. It's hard. But it's made it pretty fun.''
Fun enough, now that that tightness Detroit feels in its throat area is more dress shirt than rope burn. The Twins are the ones feeling pinched now, facing 10 road games over 11 days, with nothing in Dome Sweet Dome until maybe it's too late (Oct. 2-4 vs. Royals).
"Obviously, a two-game swing, that's big,'' said Minnesota's Michael Cuddyer, whose team had used a season-best six-game winning streak to reach four games over .500 (another high mark) and creep within two games of the Tigers until Sunday. "At the same time, it's not end-all, say-all. There's still 13 games left. Just seeing over this last week what can happen over the course of six games -- and we still have 13 to play.''
Cuddyer was protective of the AL Central, too. "All the teams want to win this division,'' he said. "Even the Kansas City Royals want to win this division, if they could. I just think there's a lot of parity in this division. We beat up on each other the whole season. That's what happens when you've got unbalanced schedules. If nobody goes out and goes 13-6 against a team, 16-3, it's going to be tight the whole way and that's what it's been this year.''
2. Detroit will ride its veterans, win or lose.
It was, everyone agreed, what the Twins do: Play hard in September to chase down division leaders, as they did to the Tigers in 2006 and to the White Sox last year. But Detroit has been there as well, all the way to the World Series in '06, which had manager Jim Leyland hoping that some old racehorses might hear the bugle, his bloodhounds might pick up the scent.
"For the most part, our veterans have got to take us home,'' Leyland said afterward. "I mean, we've got veterans on this team who were in a World Series. They know what it's all about. This is basically October baseball in September for the White Sox, the Twins and us. They should know what it's all about. I just think you should go down the stretch with those guys and if they don't get it done, they don't get it done.''
Six of Detroit's top 11 position players are 32 or older and six were on the 2006 club that went 7-1 against New York and Oakland before losing to St. Louis in the World Series. Several of them came up big Sunday: Placido Polanco had a two-run single to put the Tigers in front in the fifth, 3-1, then added a sacrifice fly for the game's final run in the eighth. He began the day batting .364 in September and left Minnesota hitting .546 in the series.
Magglio Ordonez had two hits to boost his September average to .386 and his lifetime mark against Twins righthander Scott Baker to .444 (16-for-36). Then there was Robertson, 31, who missed two months with masses in his left arm and, despite returning in late August, had to be checked out again last week after tweaking himself again st Cleveland Sept. 3. As it is, Robertson is taking the place of August addition Jarrod Washburn, hobbled by his left knee. He had enough guile for six strikeouts, getting three of Twins leadoff man Denard Span's four.
"Nate just totally pitched him good today,'' Detroit catcher Gerald Laird said. "He's kind of like their pulse. He gets on base and gets things going for Mauer and those guys. with him not on, it's a rally killer.''
3. Aces can be high or low.
Minnesota was pumped after beating Justin Verlander on Saturday night, courtesy of a Dome fly ball lost by left fielder Don Kelly. But Baker had been the Twins' best pitcher -- 11-2 since June 1 -- so watching him sputter through 4 2/3 innings, giving up eight hits and four runs, negated any momentum.
Was this an opportunity lost? "We could say that about a lot of opportunities this season,'' Baker said after his shortest outing since Aug. 9 at Detroit. "I guess the focus is on this series right now, but there are a lot of opportunities we missed this season.''
Detroit left the Dome for good with a record of 84-113, just shy of the White Sox's 114 losses for most by any opponent there. Prior to Sunday, Tiger pitchers had combined for a 5.18 ERA at Metrodome, worst among all visitors, since the joint's opening in 1982.
Of course the Twins are better, at bat or in the field, with Morneau and Crede at their usual infield corners. But losing both of them -- Morneau to a fracture in his back, Crede to what soon will be his third back surgery in three years -- hasn't derailed the team. The Twins are 11-3 when Morneau misses a game -- remember, he endured a serious slump, apparently while playing hurt before shutting down completely. As for Crede, 90 games, 367 plate appearances, 15 home runs and a .225 average is about all Minnesota should have expected, given his history.
5. Teletubbies lighten any mood.
Missing the sweep was a significant misstep for the Twins, given their schedule now and the math of this race. But things weren't quite funereal in their clubhouse afterward, because six rookies -- as part of a team hazing ritual -- were slipping into fuzzy, garish Teletubby costumes for the trip to Chicago. There's nothing that shouts "national pastime'' quite like hearing one big-leaguer (Brian Duensing) thank another (Brendan Harris) for fastening the back of his "Po'' outfit.
Actually, the Twins had three red Teletubbies, two purple ones, one green one and no yellows. And silly as they looked, they got off easy compared to Cuddyer, who was somehow forced to dress up three times. First he was a "bag lady,'' then he donned a purple-sequined prom dress and finally he got decked out in a wedding gown a nd handcuffed to groom Michael Restovich. "None was the best,'' Cuddyer grumbled.
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