September 17, 2006

Rooting for the Enemy

In a season filled with strange twists and unexpected turns, this might just be the strangest and most unexpected: It may actually make sense for the Twins to root for the White Sox this week. Seriously.

As the second-to-last week of the regular season gets underway, the Twins amazingly find themselves just one game behind the Tigers in the AL Central and four games ahead of the White Sox for the Wild Card. Those two teams begin a three-game series in Chicago tonight, which gives the Twins a great opportunity to ... well, do something. The question at this point is whether it's better to gain ground on the Tigers in the division or separation from the White Sox in the Wild Card race.

AL CENTRAL      W      L      GB          WILD CARD       W      L      GB
Detroit 89 60 --- Minnesota 88 61 ---
Minnesota 88 61 1.0 Chicago 84 65 4.0

In terms of simply making the playoffs above everything else, nothing beats the White Sox losing. The Twins hold a four-game lead over one legitimate opponent with two weeks left on the schedule, putting them in excellent position to make the postseason. However, if they can stretch that lead to five or six games by the end of the week, it's possible that the season-ending series against the White Sox at the Metrodome will be meaningless. In that sense, they should root for Detroit.

On the other hand, if getting into the best possible position for a World Series run is the Twins' goal, overtaking the Tigers in the division remains crucial. As discussed here last week, winning the division would give the Twins homefield advantage for at least the opening round of the playoffs and would also allow them to avoid the Yankees in favor of the seemingly more beatable A's in the first round. In that sense, they should root for Chicago.

So, which is the better option? Assuming for a moment that you can get past the unpleasantness of cheering for the White Sox under any circumstances, your rooting interests for the series comes down to your personal preference for risk versus reward. Trying to outrun the Tigers in the division represents a bigger reward, but also carries a greater risk. Trying to stay ahead of the White Sox for the Wild Card represents a smaller reward, but might carry very little risk within a few days.

I'm fairly risk-averse when it comes to baseball and life in general, but I think homefield advantage and a first-round date with the A's is worth fighting for. Plus, it's exceedingly likely that the Twins will beat the White Sox for the Wild Card regardless of what they do against the Tigers this week, whereas a Detroit sweep could go a long away toward locking up the division and putting that scenario out of reach. I can smell the Tigers' blood in the water and Johan & The Piranhas should pounce on them.

Even if it means having to root for the White Sox.

Meanwhile, by taking three out of four games in Cleveland, the Twins reached 88 wins on the season. That's not especially noteworthy, although it's the exact number of wins I predicted the Twins would end up with back in April. In fact, in previewing the Twins over at The Hardball Times, I wrote:

Pitching will carry the Twins again and that may have been enough to win the division in the past, but this year it just means they'll be in the race. The Twins are a difficult team to predict because of their many question marks, but for the most part they look like an 88-win team that will need a number of things to break their way in order to outlast the White Sox, Indians, and Tigers in what should be a very competitive division race.

In terms of one-paragraph excerpts of predictions made prior to the start of the season, that one looks pretty good. I was completely wrong about the Indians, but made up for it by guessing that the division would be extremely tough and the Tigers would be in contention. I also gave the Twins "a 30-percent chance to make the playoffs," which sounded insane in June and is now significantly lowballing their odds (which probably stand at around 90 percent, believe it or not).

A 100-win season is not out of the question yet, although the Twins would have to either run the table or go 12-1 to get there. More doable is 95 wins, which would match the 1991 World Series team for the highest total since the Twins won back-to-back division titles (and 195 total games) in 1969 and 1970. In winning three straight division titles from 2002-2004, the Twins won 94, 90, and 92 games, and the team record is 102 wins in 1965.

Having watched almost every inning of every game this year while chronicling it all here on a near-daily basis, it's very difficult for me to truly make sense of what the Twins are suddenly in a great position to accomplish. Not only is a 95-win season possible and perhaps even likely, I just spent a few hundred words debating whether they should be focused on winning the division or merely settle for a playoff berth however they can get it.

And all this about a team that once sported a 25-33 record, had Tony Batista and Juan Castro playing every day, has lost Francisco Liriano, Brad Radke, and Shannon Stewart to major injuries, and gave the Tigers a dozen-game headstart. For much of the season I've thought about what could have been had the Twins not wasted time with Batista and Castro or not lost Liriano, but now it's definitely time to think about what can be.

Oh, and go White Sox?

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