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The Tigers Are Finally In First; White Sox Showing Signs Of Wear
The Detroit Tigers took sole possession of first place in the AL Central after last night’s win and White Sox loss. At 83-72, the Tigers are currently the 3 seed in the AL, poised to play Yankees in the ALDS if they hold on. Let’s not get a head of ourselves though, the Tigers were supposed to run away with this division–win it by a double digit margin according to most–and coast to the best record in the AL while the Yankees and Rangers fended off tough divisional challengers.
What actually happened? Well, the Yanks and Rangers are doing their best to keep their leads, though the challengers are the last teams anyone expected, and the Tigers have spent just (I counted) 7 (SEVEN) days in first place or tied for first since May 1. The White Sox, who, at last check, are in the middle of a rebuilding phase and have a rookie manager, have dominated the Central all summer, though they may be running out of gas at the worst time.
The Chisox started strong behind Cy Young candidate Chris Sale and slugger Paul Konerko. They posted an 18-11 May which catapulted them into the division lead. Sale had a sparkling May and June with ERAs of 1.71 and 2.15 respectively, while going 7-1 in that span. By July 15, the Sox were up 3.5 games in the division and were buyers headed to the trade deadline. They picked up Francisco Liriano from the Twins in a move that I thought would backfire badly.
Meanwhile the Tigers headed to the deadline in panic mode. They had bet the house on this season and doubled down by trading away a top pitching prospect (Jacob Turner) for some infield help (Omar Infante). Really, the most important thing the Tigers did was wait. As we saw last year with the Dodgers, having the Cy Young winner and a strong MVP candidate on the same team doesn’t guarantee a playoff appearance (unless their the same guy, see: Justin Verlander’s 2011 season) but with Verlander fighting for his second straight Cy Young and Miguel Cabrera threatening to win the Triple Crown, it wasn’t hard for the Tigers to get on a role.
In September, Detroit is 13-11 after going 16-11 in August,; gently applying pressure to the White Sox. The Sox were 16-12 in August but are only 10-14 this month. Sale has tired, understandably as this is his first season as a starter. The Nationals would have shut him down in June (zing!).
A telling feature of the White Sox season has been their record against good teams. They are 2-6 against the Orioles, 3-5 against the Angels, and 3-3 against the A’s . They are also 6-12 against the Tigers , a fact that pretty directly has them in second place this morning. (They have a winning record against Yanks and Rangers).
With seven games still to play, I’m not writing this division off yet. The Tigers are too inconsistent and the White Sox still have some magic in them. It’s only a one game differential and it could easily flip flop by this time Saturday. However, the Tigers have been here before and feature a litany of players and coaches that know how to shut the door, and the White Sox are showing serious fatigue. This has quietly been one of the most compelling races in baseball all year. It has gotten no attention because the major story has been the Tigers’ underperformance, and the White Sox are methodical winners as opposed to flashy (like, say, the Yanks of Rangers), but it’s time to tune in.
I have to double check, but I think if the teams finish the season even, the tiebreaker game will feature Verlander vs. Sale. I’m rooting for that.