May 8, 2005

Taking Care of Business

This weekend seemed like a great time to make up a game or two on the White Sox. The Twins headed to Tampa Bay for a three-game series against the Devil Rays, whose 11-18 record had them in a familiar position near the bottom of the league. They'd be up against three starting pitchers -- Dewon Brazelton, Scott Kazmir, and Doug Waechtler -- who were a combined 2-9 this season and 19-36 in their careers, and Johan Santana was set to start the first game of the series.

Meanwhile, Chicago was headed to Toronto for a three-game series with the Blue Jays, who were 16-13 and had won seven of their last nine games. Sadly, it didn't quite turn out how I imagined. The Twins did their part, sweeping the lifeless Devil Rays while outscoring them 24-8 in the three games, but the White Sox also swept the Blue Jays to maintain their 4.5-game lead atop the American League Central.

I did, however, come to a startling realization while watching the ninth inning of Chicago's 5-4 win over Toronto yesterday afternoon. With Damaso Marte just a couple outs away from saving the White Sox's MLB-leading 24th win of the season, I realized that if the Twins keep playing as well as they are playing right now, it won't matter one bit whether or not the White Sox keep up their current pace.

Chicago could continue playing .774 baseball all year and end up with an all-time record 125 wins, and the Twins will still make the playoffs for the fourth straight season. Heck, thanks to the otherwise loathsome Wild Card, the White Sox could finish the year on a 139-game winning streak, end up at a record-shattering 155-7, and the Twins will still need the same seven October wins to get to the World Series as they needed last year. And in 2003. And in 2002.

Because if the Twins continue to play as well as they're playing right now -- winning nine of their last dozen games to rank third in the AL at 19-11 overall -- they'll cruise into the postseason and play either the winner of the AL East or the AL West in the best-of-five American League Division Series. In other words, all the Twins have to do is take care of their own business and the rest will take care of itself.

In addition to being a cliche, that seems like a rather obvious sentiment. But it's also quite reassuring in a season that has seen the Twins' chief rivals start out as hot as a team can be. I am far from giving up on the AL Central, and in fact I still think the Twins will end the season at the top of the division, but it is nice to know that there's no reason to go crazy wondering if the White Sox will ever lose again.

As long as the Twins keep winning, it doesn't much matter what the White Sox do. That is, of course, if you don't mind getting your postseason berth without winning the division. It's not my favorite way to make the playoffs, and I am really looking forward to typing "back-to-back-to-back-to-back" a few times next year, but it certainly worked out okay for the Red Sox last October. Not to mention the Marlins in 2003 and Angels in 2002.

Those of you who, like me, still have your hearts set on another division crown shouldn't give up hope either. Four and a half games is far from an insurmountable deficit on May 9. In fact, last year at this time the Twins and White Sox were tied atop the AL Central at 17-12, but everyone forgets that because the Twins ended up outplaying Chicago by nine games from May 9 to the end of the season. If Minnesota does that again this year, they'll win the division by five games.

This Twins team may just be shaping up to be the franchise's best since at least 1991, and it's important to remember that while you yell at the TV after another Chicago win. After ranking near the bottom of the league in offense last season, the Twins currently rank third in the AL in batting average (.281), second in on-base percentage (.356), fourth in slugging percentage (.427), and fourth in runs scored per game (5.10). And after leading the league in pitching last year, they currently rank second in both ERA (3.43) and runs allowed per game (3.73).

Santana is 5-1 with a 2.88 ERA and 59-to-5 strikeout-to-walk ratio, Jesse Crain and Joe Nathan have combined for a 0.00 ERA in 23 innings, Joe Mauer is hitting .356/.447/.529 and we haven't heard a thing about The Knee in weeks, Jacque Jones is hitting .341/.451/.538 with a team-best 17 walks, Justin Morneau is hitting .429/.448/.841 with 20 RBIs in 16 games, Shannon Stewart, Michael Cuddyer, Lew Ford, and Torii Hunter have yet to get on track ... and the team is on pace to go 103-59.

So really, who cares about the White Sox?

Today at The Hardball Times:
- News, Notes and Quotes (May 9, 2005) (by Aaron Gleeman)

Today's Picks (29-18, +$1,270):
Chicago (Garcia) -170 over Tampa Bay (Nomo)

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