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AL Central winner will be hard-pressed to make run


AL Central winner will be hard-pressed to make run
The good news: The Chicago White Sox have forced a one-game showdown with the Minnesota Twins to determine the American League Central champion for 2008.

The bad news: The rigors of doing so likely mean the Sox or Twins — whoever prevails — won't go deep into the postseason.

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First, though, comes that play-in game on the South Side of Chicago. Since 162 games weren't enough to sort out the division, it'll take number 163 to decide the flag. The Sox come in having played 16 games in 16 days and having endured a lengthy rain delay on Monday, so exhaustion — both physical and mental — is a real concern. On the other hand, some trends favor Chicago. For instance, Nick Blackburn, who will take the mound for the Twins, has a career ERA of 5.61 away from the Metrodome. He's also got an ERA of 5.28 in six career outings against the Sox. Overall, the White Sox this season are 8-10 against Minnesota, but they've outscored the Twins head to head and are 7-2 against them at home. So call it a narrow edge for the White Sox.

Of course, should they survive against Minnesota on Tuesday, that means the Sox will enter the postseason having played, obviously, 17 games in 17 days. They'll have Wednesday off, but then they'll face the prospect of having to trot out Mark Buehrle on short rest (for the second-straight start) or going with the deliriously inconsistent Javier Vazquez in Game 1 against the fully-rested Tampa Bay Rays. In either case, the Sox may be in trouble in the ALDS.

First and foremost, they're not as good as the Rays. Tampa bested the Sox this season by 10 wins, and that's despite playing a significantly tougher schedule (a fact that should help Tampa in the post-season). The Rays will also enjoy home-field advantage in the first round, and that plays to their strengths and the Sox's weaknesses. Specifically, Tampa is 57-24 at home — tops in all of baseball — while the Sox are just 35-46 away from U.S. Cellular Field.

Then there's the fact that Carlos Quentin, Chicago's best hitter in 2008, is still out with a broken wrist. There's a slim chance he could return late in the postseason, but he'll certainly miss the Division Series. On that point, it's worth noting that the Sox are just 11-14 since Quentin went down on Sept. 1. And, of course, they're also without Jose Contreras and his better-than-league-average ERA. All in all, if the Sox make it they'll be at less than full strength, worn down from a grueling division race, and playing a superior team without the benefit of home-field advantage. That all adds up to a likely first-round exit.

And if the Twins prevail on Tuesday and wind up going instead of Chicago? The outcome will probably be the same. The Twins are just as bad on the road (they're also 35-46 away from home this season), and they're not constructed to do well in October. As has been pointed out before in this space, teams that win in the playoffs tend to have three things in common: a dominating closer, an ability to strike out opposing hitters, and a good team defense. Well, the Twins certainly have the "dominating closer" part taken care of, but they don't fare well in the other two areas. Specifically, Minnesota pitchers this season rank 12th in the 14-team AL in strikeouts-per-nine-innings, and Minnesota fielders rank ninth in the AL in Defensive Efficiency, (which measures what percentage of balls in play a defense converts into outs). Combine those three elements, and every other playoff team in the AL rates better than the Twins. That's not good news for Minnesota.

To be sure, anything can happen in the postseason, particularly in a five-game series. The sample size of games is small, and fluke-ish outcomes are quite possible. This is a good thing: predictability is boring. However, it appears that whoever wins the war of attrition in the AL Central will make a brief stay of it in the playoffs. There's certainly no shame in having "just" a division title to show for your season, but the White Sox's and Twins' designs on the World Series trophy probably won't be realized.


Author:Fox Sports
Author's Website:http://www.foxsports.com
Added: September 30, 2008

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