And now we get a division race that’s captivating two cities and nobody else, a pound-it-out spectacle that would be understandable if Brian Urlacher were on one side of the field and Ndamukong Suh the other.
Detroit and Chicago have come to expect a certain black-and-blue flavor when their football teams meet this time of year to grind out a game that’s short on beauty. But this week there’s a real chance that Tigers vs. White Sox will have a Bears-Lions feel, because right now this AL Central chase seems like a slog.
Neither team looks fabulous here in the late summer, and neither is dropping hints that it can rip through September and October and steal someone else’s World Series trophy. The Tigers are just seven games over .500 and the biggest underachievers west of Philly. Meanwhile, the White Sox may have beaten their rivals 6-1 on Monday night, but they still have bruises from a weekend beatdown at the hands of the Royals, who’ve taken 10 of 15 against the current division leader. Which says plenty about the division, the worst in the majors.
But none of that says anything about baseball and the wonderfully weird magic of September. Both the sport and the month are utterly unpredictable. Yes, here’s a White Sox team missing a slugger to an injury, that struggles against certain 98-pound weaklings, and that record-wise is baseball’s least-imposing division leader. Yes, you see a Tigers team plodding along, wasting its star power, unable to do anything consistently except frustrate the hell out of folks, and you assume that they’ll soon be pushed aside by the White Sox this week in Chicago -- and then by the Lions in Detroit.
Well, it’s also possible that we’re in the midst of a stirring four-game series at The Cell that allows either the Sox or Tigers to finally press the accelerator and distance themselves from their murky status once and for all. All it takes for any team within striking distance is a stretch where the switch flips on, and the same team that spent the first half of September mumbling to itself will spend the last half of October pinching itself.
That’s baseball. That’s also the ’03 Marlins, who settled for the wild card after finishing 10 games behind the Braves, then beat three favored teams in the postseason. That’s the ’06 Cardinals, who lost ace Mark Mulder, finished the season 83-78, then sucker-punched the Mets in seven games to win the NL and shocked the Tigers to sip champagne. And that’s the ’11 Cardinals, who wiped out a 10½-game deficit to steal the wild card, and you know what happened next. Craziness happened. Magic happened.
Whatever happened to the White Sox and Tigers from April until now has very little to do with what comes next. Because this stage of the season isn’t about the best team, it’s about the hottest. It’s about who can find a pitcher or two, and a manager who knows the right buttons and strings to push and pull, and a hitter who doesn’t shrivel in the clutch. If this comes together in the final eight weeks in the fall, it can make the previous 20 weeks seem an insignificant speck in the rear-view mirror.
“We need to understand you’re getting toward a sense of urgency, which is certainly different than a sense of panic,” said Tigers manager Jim Leyland. “When you put yourself in a position like we’re in, you’ve got to play these games like it’s your last. If I have to remind the guys that the stakes are big right now, then we don’t have the team I thought we had.”
Well, the lead for the White Sox is now two games after Tuesday night's 5-3 loss. In Monday night's series opener, the Tigers’ perplexing issues were all on display. Their fielding was sloppy, their base-running confounding and their hitting turned soft at all the wrong times. Prince Fielder will finish this season, his first in Detroit, with 30 homers, 100 RBIs and a .300 average, but you couldn’t tell in the 6-1 Tigers loss. He watched a third strike with a runner on third to end the fifth, and, then, while representing the tying run, grounded out to end the eighth. It’s not just Fielder; even Miguel Cabrera, arguably the best pure hitter in baseball, has blown chances lately, one reason the Tigers were swept by the Angels last weekend. For all of their star power, they’ve got this habit of turning to vapor in big moments.
Still, they’re capable. They’ve swept the White Sox twice. They have Justin Verlander, the reigning AL Cy Young winner and MVP, and Max Scherzer in the rotation. Cabrera is a strong MVP candidate and along with Fielder and Delmon Young the Tigers are thick in the middle of the order. There’s also Leyland, the championship- and time-tested manager. Now approaching 50 years in baseball, some might accuse him of being asleep in a handful of situations this season, but his experience gives him an advantage that others lack. Overall, the Tigers have the kind of quality that’s necessary to start a September streak.
“Well, we just didn’t play a good ballgame,” Leyland told reporters after Monday’s game. “We had chances and didn’t take advantage. We know this is a big series and we know what’s at stake.”
The White Sox are just as flawed. They managed just two hits in seven innings against righty Doug Fister in Tuesday's loss, and haven’t capitalized on the struggles of the Tigers to put the division out of reach, something good teams usually manage to do. This raises the suspicion that the Sox, who weren’t projected to be this good anyway, are through fooling us and ready to reveal their true identity.
“In spring training if someone asked us if we wanted to be in meaningful games in September with Detroit, we’d take it,” said manager Robin Ventura.
There’s also a chance that their best stretch is ahead. If they can take three of four in this series and increase their lead to four games, it’ll be tough to blow that, even if Adam Dunn’s strained oblique keeps him out another week. Their ability to generate runs separates the White Sox from most of the pack. They’re the only team with five players who each have at least 20 homers, giving them threats throughout the lineup. They wisely picked up Kevin Youkilis for insurance, and as an added bonus, A.J. Pierzynski, who smacked his 26th homer Monday, is delivering stronger power numbers than ever before.
It’ll be up to their pitching, and that’s the tricky part for the Sox. Jose Quintana went seven strong on Monday and spotted the Tigers one run in the win, but he’s one of a number of Sox pitchers who turn hot and then cold, sometimes in the same game and the same inning. He was 1-3 in his previous 10 starts. Only Chris Sale consistently scares anyone. Gavin Floyd has a bum elbow, and Jake Peavy’s best years are behind him (he couldn't get out of the sixth on Tuesday, and fell to 10-11 with the loss). Unpredictability runs through the rotation.
But that only means the Tigers and White Sox are qualified for September baseball. They’ve been imperfect, disappointing at times, maddening to comprehend. But perhaps ready to make a lasting leap: The last time the White Sox felt their season slipping was in 2005, when their 15½-game lead shriveled to 1½, and Chicago reacted as if Mrs. O’Leary’s cow was kicking at another lantern. Those Sox found some pitching and went 11-1 in the postseason.
So there is plenty of motivation for the White Sox to put away the Tigers in their final head-to-head series of the year. One, they’ve rallied in September once before. Two, they won’t have to see the Royals in the postseason. As for the Tigers, if nothing else they need to save face and play up to their payroll and reputation.
One of these warthog-ugly teams will win the AL Central, which might be decided by a series at The Cell that only a mother could love. It’s been that kind of season for the White Sox and Tigers, but we know from history that it doesn’t have to be that kind of September. Or October.