August 4, 2004

Closing Time

The Minnesota Twins, thanks to a 14-5 record since the All-Star break and Chicago's 8-12 record during the same span, are getting very close to running away and hiding from the rest of the American League Central. Now, those of you who have experienced my incredible pessimism in regard to the Twins over the last two years know that I'm the last person in the world to say something like that, but I think it's true.

The Twins are now six games ahead of the Chicago White Sox with 56 games left to play. They do play the White Sox six more times, which means anything can still happen, but Chicago has been decimated by injuries and are fading fast, while the Twins have won six straight series, including three in a row against above-.500 teams.

If the Twins play .500 baseball from here on out (they've won 57.5% of their games thus far), they would finish at 89-73. For the White Sox to catch them, Chicago would have to go 35-23 to from here on out. Anyone think that's happening with Magglio Ordonez and Frank Thomas out of action for at least half those games?

I know this is going to anger a lot of White Sox fans and even some Twins fans who believe in idiocy like me being able to jinx baseball teams, but I'm starting to get more worried about Cleveland than I am about Chicago. The Indians are eight games behind the Twins, so they have an even tougher task ahead of them, but they play the Twins an incredible 13 times in their remaining 54 games. Of course, when you're more worried about a team eight games back than you are about a team six games back, you know your team is in pretty good shape. Which is my entire point, I guess.

As for last night's game, it was a pretty good one. Aside from nearly imploding in the fourth inning, Kyle Lohse actually pitched well, going seven innings while allowing three runs. Lohse did allow nine hits, but at least he actually got some strikeouts (four), didn't walk everyone in the building (one) and threw plenty of strikes (68.3%).

He's still not anywhere close to the pitcher he was last year, but last night's performance was at least a step towards being a pitcher you can actually put on the mound every fifth game. After Lohse finished up his seven innings, he handed the ball off to the Twins' 1-2 combo of Juan Rincon and Joe Nathan, who slammed the door on the 6-3 win.

Nathan now has 31 saves with a 0.91 ERA. The saves are the sixth-most in baseball and the ERA is the best for any major league pitcher with at least 25 innings pitched this year. I still expect Nathan to, at some point, have a rough patch, but if he can avoid that he has a chance to finish with one of the all-time great seasons by a relief pitcher.

Nathan is on pace for 75-80 innings pitched on the year. Here's a list of all the pitchers who have had an ERA better than 0.91 in at least 70 innings pitched since 1900 ...

PITCHER                  YEAR        IP      ERA

Dennis Eckersley 1990 73.1 0.61
Ferdie Schupp 1916 140.0 0.90

That's it, that's the whole list.

Now, I wouldn't bet on Nathan finishing the year with a 0.91 ERA, just because pitching another 20-25 innings with an ERA under 1.00 is really hard to do, but it's something to keep track of over the next two months. If he pitches a scoreless inning in his next appearance, Nathan would move ahead of Ferdie Schupp with a 0.89 ERA on the year.

Basically, Nathan can afford to give up three more runs this year and still stay on track to rank third all-time if he is going to pitch 75+ innings. To rank ahead of Dennis Eckersley's 1990 season, Nathan would have to finish the year with 25.1 scoreless innings. That might seem outlandish, but Nathan is currently working on a 24-inning scoreless streak.

New article at The Hardball Times: The Magic Twenty (Third Base)

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