Down to the wire

The Minnesota Twins opened their final homestand of the year desperately needing to sweep the Chicago White Sox to stay in the hunt for the AL Central crown.

Trailing by 2.5 games at the start of the series on Tuesday, the Twins took charge early in the first game in dashing out to a 9-3 win. They scored early in the second game only to see Chicago answer in the top of the second. Minnesota tallied two in the bottom of the second to jump to a 3-1 lead. That was all the Twins needed; their three runs stood up in a 3-2 victory.

That set the stage for an epic third game Thursday night.

Once again, the Twins took an early lead with a run in the bottom of the first. The game stayed at 1-0 until the White Sox exploded for six runs in the top of the fourth, chasing starter Kevin Slowey. (Maybe “exploded” isn’t technically the correct word; five of the six runs scored on balls that didn’t leave the infield.)

Undeterred, the Twins began to chip away at the Chicago lead, scoring two runs in the fourth and one in the sixth to cut their deficit to two. Matt Thornton starting his second inning of work, gave up a leadoff double to pinch-hitter Brendan Harris in the eighth. Thornton, a lefty, stayed in the game to retire the switch-hitting Nick Punto before yielding to White Sox closer Bobby Jenks. Before Jenks could record an out, Carlos Gomez singled in Harris and Denard Span brought Gomez home with a triple to tie the score at six.

Thursday night was Gomez night at the Dome. He went 4-for-5 with two triples, three runs scored and two RBI. More on him in a moment…

After Jenks escaped the bottom of the eighth without further damage, the Twins countered with their closer, Joe Nathan. Both closers mowed down the opposition with minimal fuss in the ninth. Nathan came back out for the 10th and again retired the side in order, making it only the second time this season and 12th time in four years Nathan threw two innings in a ballgame.

White Sox manager Ozzie Guillen stuck with Jenks in the bottom of the 10 and saw his man get the first out of the inning. But then Jenks fell behind Punto and lost him on a walk, bringing up the latest Twins hero, Gomez. Gomez didn’t come through with a base hit. In fact, he hit a chopper to second. But it was such a slowly hit ball, and to the left of the second baseman, that the only play was to first, advancing Punto. Two out. Punto moves to third on a wild pitch by Jenks. The White Sox decide to walk Span (who was 3-for-4 on the night) to face Alexi Casilla.

Only once all season had Jenks thrown more than 27 pitches in an outing. On his 34th pitch of this night, Casilla stroked a soft single to center field, plating Punto and moving the Twins into first place, a half game ahead of the vanquished White Sox.

That’s where it stands in the American League Central as we enter the final weekend of games.

As an added twist, the White Sox have one game dangling on the end of their schedule that will be played on Monday (against the Tigers) if the Twins are within a half game at the end of play on Sunday. Because of that, with the Twins in first, they somewhat control their own destiny. If they win out, the worst that can happen to them is they will force the White Sox to play their Monday makeup game. In fact, the only way they can lose the division by Sunday is if they close out the season with three consecutive losses while the White Sox win at least two. Otherwise, most combinations point to a ballgame on Monday.

Good thing the wild card isn’t a factor to screw this up.

Here’s how the final weekend shapes up:

Kansas City at Minnesota

The Twins have owned the Royals this season, beating them 11 out of 15 times while outscoring Kansas City 68-42.

Overall, Kansas City owns a .320 OPB, the 12th lowest total in the league and abhors the walk, drawing 387, the lowest in the AL. In fact, the Royals have played 30 games this year without drawing a single free pass. Eight of those contests have been against Minnesota. Incidentally, the Royals can tie a record if they can go without a walk in just one more game, matching the ’64 Mets as walkless wonders.

The Twins have been baseball’s road warriors, playing 24 of their last 30 away from the Dome before returning to Minnesota to face the White Sox and Royals in the final week. The road games took their toll, as the Twins won just 12 times in that stretch. The Royals meanwhile, have been fattening up on cupcakes like the Tigers and Seattle Mariners, who are mailing it in down the stretch.

Friday: Kyle Davies (4.21 ERA, 5.09 xFIP) vs. Francisco Liriano (3.39 ERA, 4.44 xFIP)

Since returning from Triple-A, Liriano has been dominant, with a 2.05 ERA while limiting the opposition to a line of .211/.270/.352. With a strikeout rate of 8.1 K/9, he’s not the same power pitcher he was before his surgery. According to PITCHf/x data, his average fastball has lost about 4 mph this season.

Davies averages about 93 pitches per start, and a walk rate of 3.5 BB/9 means he rarely goes deep into games. He’s pitched into the seventh inning just four times all year and averages just over five innings per start. That puts the Royals bullpen into play. After a horrible August, the Kansas City bullpen is finishing strong with a 3.67 ERA over the last 68 innings.

Saturday: Gil Meche (4.05 ERA, 4.11 xFIP) vs. Glen Perkins (4.50 ERA, 5.07 xFIP)

Meche’s numbers are somewhat inflated due to a rough April in which he posted a 7.22 ERA in six starts. However, in 27 starts since he has a 3.43 ERA with an average Game Score of 56. That won’t impress the Twins—they’ve battered the Royals starter and hung a 7.50 ERA on Meche in three starts. But it has to be noted that two of those three came in April.

Since throwing eight shutout innings with a season-high 107 pitches, Perkins has struggled with an 8.02 ERA in his last five starts. He had his worst outing last week against Tampa when, after being handed a three-run lead, couldn’t get out of the first inning. It didn’t help that Matt Tolbert couldn’t make a routine throw to first on a Rocco Baldelli grounder that would have been the third out of the inning. His recent struggles caused the Twins to juggle their rotation so he wouldn’t have to start against the White Sox. He’ll be pitching on nine days rest.

Somehow, even with the unbalanced schedule, Perkins has yet to face the Royals.

Sunday: Brandon Duckworth (5.06 ERA, 5.26 xFIP) vs. Scott Baker (3.59 ERA, 4.30 xFIP)

The Twins drew a huge break with the announcement that the Royals are shutting down Zack Greinke for the year—he was set to start the season finale. Duckworth has spent the majority of this season in Triple-A, where he posted a 4.75 ERA in 134 innings of work. Just the kind of guy you want to face if the division title is on the line.

Like Perkins, Baker has seen an increase in workload this year, throwing 500 more pitches this year than last. Unlike Perkins, Baker is finishing the season on a strong note, with a 2.76 ERA in his last seven starts. He’s coming off a huge win against Chicago in which he went seven innings and allowed just a single run on five hits and a walk while striking out four.

Cleveland at Chicago

The White Sox have conquered the Indians 10 times in 15 meetings so far this season. But the Tribe has actually outscored the Sox 68-65.

With 18 wins in its last 30 games, Cleveland is one of the hottest teams in the league. The Indians were 16 games under .500 on July 9 and have gone 42-26 since then to climb back to the break-even point.

Chicago spent much of August battling the Twins for supremacy in the Central, with the Sox never falling more than a game out of first. They moved into first on Aug. 24 and have held the top spot ever since, leading by as much as 2.5 games before their current slide dropped them to second.

Friday: Scott Lewis (1.42 ERA, 4.58 xFIP) vs. John Danks (3.20 ERA, 3.93 xFIP)

After he missed the first two and a half months with a muscle injury in his shoulder, the plan was to keep Lewis in Double-A. Plans change and with trades and injuries, the Indians decided they could use him at the big league level.

Lewis has made three starts and didn’t allow a run until his 16th big league inning, which came in his third start against Detroit. He’s thrown about 120 innings combined at all levels this year, so injury concerns aside, he should be fresh for his final start of the year.

Danks has cut his walk rate this year and is reaping the benefits. After posting a rate of 3.5 BB/9 in ‘07, he’s down to 2.6 BB/9, the lowest rate of his professional career. He’s allowing fewer base runners than ever and with a 77 percent strand rate, he’s not letting many of those guys come around to touch home plate.

Historically, Danks has been a fly ball pitcher. Then he worked with Mark Buehrle to add a cut fastball to his arsenal and the results have been noticeable:

GB/FB Ratio
2007: 0.76
2008: 1.25

Saturday: Zach Jackson (6.04 ERA, 4.55 xFIP) vs. Javier Vazquez (4.46 ERA, 3.94 xFIP)

Hey, did you hear that Vazquez isn’t a “big-game pitcher?”

Whatever, Vazquez has been hugely inconsistent this year. One start, he’ll pitch into the eighth inning while shutting out his opponent or allowing just one run. Others, he’ll struggle to get to out of the fifth while allowing a handful of runs. He’s thrown six innings or less in 30 percent of his starts. The problem is, he hasn’t made it past the fourth inning in either of his last two.

Recent struggles aside, he’s actually pitched better over the second half of the season. In 13 starts spanning 83 innings, Vazquez has a 4.23 ERA with a 8.5 K/9 and a 1.22 WHIP. His ERA is high a touch on the high side because with a 69.9 percent strand rate, he’s had a difficult time working out of jams. Opposing teams are hitting .295/.347/.451 against Vazquez with men on base.

Jackson arrived in the Cleveland organization in the deal that sent CC Sabathia to the Brewers. He’s pitched primarily out of the bullpen in Triple-A this year, throwing only 84 innings in 30 appearances, including 10 starts. He’s made eight starts for the Indians since getting called up in mid-August with less than impressive results, including a .310 batting average against and a 4.9 K/9. However, his control is good with a walk rate of 1.9 BB/9 and a 2.5:1 strikeout to walk ratio. With a 1.6 GB/FB ratio, he keeps the ball on the ground, so that will undoubtedly help in the homer-happy Cell.

Sunday: Cliff Lee (2.54 ERA) vs. Mark Buehrle (3.87 ERA)

Now we’re talking.

In Lee, the Indians send the mortal lock for the Cy Young award to the mound for his final start in a season beyond anyone’s expectations. But… (there’s always a but…)

Lee is running out of gas down the stretch. He’s been incredibly efficient this year, with a walk rate of 1.4 BB/9. That means although he’s thrown 20 more innings (223.1 innings total) than any other season of his career, he’s thrown fewer pitches than the last season he topped 200 innings pitched.

2006: 200.2 IP, 3,361 pitches
2008: 223.1 IP, 3,289 pitches

Still, that’s quite a workload and the toll is becoming evident. As mentioned, Lee’s control has been outstanding this season. Over his first 29 starts, he walked more than two batters just one time. But he’s done that twice in his last two starts. Considering his career walk rate is 2.7 BB/9, maybe that’s just the law of averages catching up with Lee. Regardless, he hasn’t been the same pitcher. He’s thrown 21.2 innings over his last three starts, so he’s still going deep into games, but his ERA over that time is an unsightly 4.98 and the opposition is slapping him around with a .326 batting average against.

Lee has dominated the White Sox in his two starts against them this year, allowing a single run in 17 innings of work.

He matches up against Buehrle who will finish with a sub-4 ERA for the fourth time in the last five seasons. It’s just a typical day at the park for Buehrle. who still keeps the ball on the ground (1.6 GB/FB), has good control (2.2 BB/9), and has a low strikeout rate (5.7 K/9).

With so many balls put in play against Buehrle, the defense the White Sox line up behind him is especially important. This year, his DER is .692 which ranks him in the lower third among qualified starters. It’s also worth noting that he has allowed 14 unearned runs.

With both the Sox and Twins playing out their schedule at home against teams with lesser starting pitching, it’s easy to see each club taking two of three from their weaker division rivals. That’s exactly why it was so critical for the Twins to sweep their series earlier in the week against Chicago.

If the rotations hold and there’s that half game difference between the Twins and the White Sox, it figures to be Gavin Floyd against newly resurrected Freddy Garcia on Monday.

If these two series are as good as the just completed three-gamer between the Twins and the White Sox, we’re in for quite a treat. I can’t wait.

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