August 22, 2004

What a Difference a Week Makes

The American League Central race is really unpredictable.

How unpredictable is it, Aaron?

So unpredictable, in fact, that it makes me look stupid on a weekly basis (although some might say that's not a particularly noteworthy accomplishment).

Okay, so that wasn't much of a punchline, but consider that two weeks ago, with the Twins up six games on the second-place Chicago White Sox, I wrote:

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.

Then, last Monday, with the Twins clinging to a two-game lead over not the Chicago White Sox, but the Cleveland Indians, I wrote about the disorder in the American League Central house:

I was too busy being giddy about what looked like a third straight division title win over the White Sox to even think about the Indians. I mean, the Twins had been fighting back and forth with Chicago all year, just like they did in 2002 and 2003, and they had surged ahead at a key moment, seemingly putting the White Sox out of reach, just like they did in 2002 and 2003.

Then suddenly the Indians were right there -- two games back. And if not for a surprisingly excellent start by Terry Mulholland and a three-hit game from Corey Koskie yesterday, the division would be all tied up. To say the Indians snuck up on me would be an understatement. They didn't even really sneak, they were just sort of there. Like a car that pulls up next to you at a red light without ever being in your rear-view mirror. And now they're revving their engine, waiting for the light to turn green.

Now here we are, just a week later, and order has been restored. With their lead sitting at a slim two games last Monday, the Twins took two out of three from the New York Yankees while Cleveland dropped three straight to the Texas Rangers. Then, this weekend, the Twins flexed their muscles by sweeping Cleveland in a three-game series at the Metrodome, outscoring the Indians 20-5.

Two weeks ago, they were fighting the White Sox and pulling away from the AL Central pack. Last week, they were fighting the Indians and their lead was shrinking on a daily basis. This week, all is well in Minnesota and the Twins have the biggest lead atop the AL Central that they've had all year.

AL CENTRAL      W      L     WIN%      GB

Minnesota 69 54 .561 ---
Cleveland 63 62 .504 7.0
Chicago 60 61 .496 8.0

I was thinking about what I could say this week that might look dumb seven days from now, like what I said two weeks ago about the Twins putting the rest of the division out of sight and what I said last week about the Indians getting ready to blow past the Twins when the light turned green. I've decided that the only option is to proclaim the AL Central race over and declare the Twins division champs for the a third straight year. So that's what I'm doing.

The Twins are just about done with what is by far the toughest part of their schedule for the entire year, having played 22 out of 25 games against above-.500 teams, including six games against the Indians, four against the A's, and three each against the White Sox, Red Sox, Yankees and Angels. They have another 10 games left in the brutal 35-game stretch, going to Texas for four games starting tonight, heading to Anaheim for three, and then finishing up with another three games against the Rangers, in Minnesota. If Minnesota can make it through that without a disaster taking place, they then enter one of the easiest portions of their schedule, playing a 10-game stretch against Kansas City, Baltimore and Detroit.

Assuming the Twins can manage to play .500 baseball over their final 39 games (they have won 56.1% of their games thus far), they would finish the season with 88 wins. For the Indians to catch them, Cleveland would have to go 25-12 over their final 37 games. For the White Sox (yes, they're still alive) to catch them, Chicago would have to go 28-13 over their final 41 games. In other words, this thing is totally in Minnesota's hands and, barring a major collapse, they'll be taking home the division title for the third straight year.

The funny thing about all of this is that, if you'd have told me two weeks ago that the Twins would be up seven games in the division on August 23 and cruising to another division title, I'd have had no problem believing you and I wouldn't have thought twice about it. Meanwhile, if you'd have told me the exact same thing last week, I probably would have called you a liar, among other things.

Aside from the Twins re-taking the dominant position in the division, some other interesting things happened in the AL Central during the past week ...

  • Corey Koskie resurrected his entire season. Prior to last week, Koskie had been getting an awful lot of heat from Twins fans for his disappointing year offensively, but as I explained a little while back, even Koskie struggling is far better and more valuable than Cristian Guzman, who has received all sorts of undeserved praise lately.

    After the Twins dropped the second game of the first Cleveland series on August 14, Koskie was hitting .234/.335/.440 on the year. Those are certainly not bad numbers for a third baseman, particularly one who plays great defense, but they were quite a long way from the .278/.374/.464 he hit from 2001-2003.

    Since then, Koskie has been on fire. He went 3-for-5 with a homer, a double, two runs scored and two RBIs in the final game of that Cleveland series, helping the Twins avoid a sweep, and then went 6-for-10 with a homer, a double, three runs scored and four RBIs in the three-game series against the Yankees. Koskie continued his hot hitting this weekend by homering in all three games against Cleveland.

    In the course of seven games, Koskie improved his Gross Productive Average for the season by nearly 10%, finishing yesterday's game with a .251/.346/.490 line on the year. Thanks to his homer binge, Koskie is now the team leader in homers and slugging percentage, and has a chance to become the first Twins hitter to smack 30 homers in a season since 1987.

  • The Cleveland offense that had been putting up huge numbers all year was completely shut down, scoring a grand total of 15 runs over their last seven games, all losses. Last week, while raving about the Indians' hitting, I said, "The pitching staff is still not very good, which is part of the reason why I didn't think they'd be a factor this year, but the offense is so good -- leading all of baseball in runs scored, on-base percentage and doubles -- that it doesn't much matter who's on the mound." Of course, it does matter when they're scoring 2-3 runs per game, and the Indians' pitching staff gave up 50 runs in those seven losses.

    And it's not like they were facing great pitching. In those seven losses -- four to Minnesota and three to Texas -- the Indians faced the following starting pitchers ...

    Terry Mulholland (twice)

    Mickey Callaway

    Scott Erickson

    Kenny Rogers

    Kyle Lohse

    Brad Radke

    Those six pitchers have ERAs of 4.50, 7.94, 6.67, 4.55, 5.23 and 3.41 this year, and only Rogers and Radke have winning records.

  • The White Sox continued their freefall from contention, dropping two out of three to Detroit and then getting swept at home by Boston. Chicago is now 14-23 since the All-Star break, including 8-18 since coming to the Metrodome for a big three-game series on July 26.

    While you might have expected the Chicago offense to go flat without Frank Thomas and Magglio Ordonez, it has actually been their pitching staff that has let them down of late. White Sox pitchers have a 5.00 ERA since the All-Star break and the team allowed 47 runs during their latest six-game homestand against Detroit and Boston. If Chicago continues to play like this, they not only have no shot at making things interesting atop the division, they are in serious danger of finishing in fourth place.

    Right now, both Cleveland and Chicago are closer to the fourth-place Tigers than they are to the first-place Twins. The good news for all three teams is that no one is going to "catch" the Royals for the basement position, but here's what the fight to avoid the dreaded "Worst non-Royals team in the division" spot looks like:

    AL CENTRAL      W      L     WIN%      GB
    Cleveland 63 62 .504 ---
    Chicago 60 61 .496 1.0
    Detroit 58 65 .472 4.0

    Obviously part of Detroit closing the gap on Cleveland and Chicago comes from the Indians and White Sox struggling over the last week or so, but the Tigers are playing pretty well too. They are 7-3 over their past 10 games, winning back-to-back series against the White Sox and Mariners.

*****Comments? Questions? Email me!*****

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