September 15, 2008

Two Steps Forward, One Step Back

Winning both ends of Saturday's doubleheader allowed the Twins to leap into a first-place tie, but they finished the Orioles series with a loss Sunday while the White Sox pulled off a doubleheader sweep of their own to reclaim a 1.5-game division lead. After beating the Angels on August 22, the Twins were 74-54 and led the AL Central by one game. They're 8-13 since and have managed to lose 2.5 games in the standings despite the White Sox playing sub-.500 baseball during that same stretch.

Much has been made of the Twins out-performing expectations this season, and that's certainly true. Few people picked them for first or second place, and my guess that they'd win 83-85 games is within reach this week. However, at some point preseason expectations become fairly meaningless. In March most people pegged the Tigers and Indians among the AL's top teams, but instead they're a combined 13 games below .500 and it looks like 90 wins will be enough to claim the division title.

Because of that the Twins have oddly been both a pleasant surprise and disappointment this season. They're on track to win 89 games, which almost everyone would have gladly signed up for coming into the year. Yet at the same time they've failed to take advantage of numerous opportunities to emerge atop what is a pretty woeful division, repeatedly stumbling when it looked like they were ready to take the next step and unraveling when the White Sox tried to gift wrap the division for them.

In June the Twins headed into Chicago for a four-game matchup with a chance to move into first place and got swept by a combined score of 40-15. They recovered from that to win 19 of the next 24 games, erasing the White Sox's six-game lead, but the momentum came to a screeching halt when they were swept by the Red Sox at Fenway Park. Five wins in six games followed before another three-game road sweep, this time at the hands of the Yankees.

They again bounced back, this time winning 19 of 27 games while taking over the division lead, but the incredibly frustrating 14-game road trip (and brutal 4-11 stretch) followed. Win two convincing games against the Royals, drop the series finale. Win two convincing games against the Orioles, drop the series finale. Every team goes through ups and downs during the 162-game marathon of a baseball season, but it's a definite pattern with the Twins.

The Twins have shown the ability to bounce back from rough patches, which is a big part of how they've managed to out-perform expectations overall, but they've also shown little ability to handle success by building upon their momentum without suffering ugly setbacks along the way. Few expected the Twins to win the division this season, but that doesn't make the division any less winnable. They were 75-54 with 33 games remaining and no longer had to worry about the Tigers or Indians.

Since then the White Sox have lost more games than they've won and still gained ground, which is why finishing second would be as disappointing as it is unexpected. This team has had ample opportunity to win a division that they weren't expected to compete for, but so far at least they've shown no signs of taking advantage. Winning 88 games and finishing second would be a very successful year all things considered, but the Twins are a good team in a bad division and a playoff spot is there for the taking.

                W      L      GB     REMAINING SCHEDULE
White Sox 83 65 --- 4@NYY, 3@KAN, 3@MIN, 3vCLE, 1@DET
Twins 82 67 1.5 3@CLE, 4@TAM, 3vCHW, 3vKAN

Aside from home versus road, the only real differences in the remaining schedules boil down to a) the Twins play the Rays four times while the White Sox play the Yankees four times, and b) the White Sox will be forced to make up a rain-postponed game with the Tigers following the last scheduled regular-season game if the division is still in doubt. Time is running out and the Twins have blown all sorts of chances already, but two good weeks will still win this thing.

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Here are the results from Friday's poll asking "Which day is best for the weekly live chat?":

A few things. First, you guys are absolutely no help. Seriously, a tie? Second, it's amusing to me that a poll asking "Who should be the next Official Fantasy Girl of" got 1,617 votes, but a poll asking "Which day is best for the weekly live chat?" got 154 votes (especially after 331 people showed up for the first live chat). Anyway, since the chat debut last week came on a Monday, let's try Wednesday afternoon this week and see how things go. At least 77 people will be happy.

Once you're done here, check out my latest "Daily Dose" column over at Rotoworld.

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