Only five teams in baseball history have made the playoffs while getting outscored by their opponents (excluding strike years).* This year's Detroit Tigers have a chance to become the sixth. It's not a proud achievement. The Tigers have, so far, been outscored by three runs -- three is also the number of games that the Tigers are ahead of the Minnesota Twins in the loss column, which is the only column that matters in the defective American League Central.
*The five teams that made the playoffs despite being outscored are pretty unmemorable, except for one. The forgettable teams are the 2007 Arizona Diamondbacks, the 2005 San Diego Padres, the 1997 San Francisco Giants and the 1984 Kansas City Royals. The unforgettable one: The 1987 Minnesota Twins, who won the World Series, thanks largely to the soon-to-be-abandoned Metrodome.
It tells you pretty much all you need to know about the dearth of pennant races this year that we are left watching this division with any interest at all. Well, hey, at least it's close. The American League East has been without drama for months now -- and even with the Red Sox closing in on the Yankees, who really cares? Both will make the playoffs.* Texas was a fun story in the West, but the Rangers never seemed to have the substance to catch the Angels. Same story with Florida chasing Philadelphia and Colorado chasing Los Angeles. The wild-card race in the NL had a brief burst of life when the Rockies played the Giants last week -- but other than that it has been dead, too.
*I know I'm in the vast minority of people who don't like the wild card, but I don't like the wild card. And it really has nothing to do with tradition or the purity of the game or any of that nonsense. No, to me the wild card has taken away a lot of the fun.
This year provides a great example why. The Red Sox are five games back of the Yankees with two weeks left. The Yankees are teetering. The Red Sox are coming on. These should be an amazing two weeks as those two teams have to play their guts out just to make the playoffs. Every day should be filled with drama. The upcoming three-game series between the two should have all the emotion of a World Series. Monday's night's excruciating Red Sox loss to Kansas City -- a game in which Boston blew TWO six-run leads -- should be absolutely devastating. Instead, there's no drama at all. They're both making the playoffs. They're playing for the right to face the AL Central winner instead of the Angels. Not exactly nail-biting stuff.
So, those of us who love pennant races -- isn't that every baseball fan? -- are stuck watching the Tigers and Twins match flaws over the final two weeks. This division has been quite the fiasco this year. Funny thing, the American League Central was probably the best division in all of baseball in the middle part of the decade. The White Sox won the World Series in 2005 and Cleveland won 93 games that same year. The next year three teams in the division won 90 games, and the Tigers won the AL pennant. In 2007 the Indians seemed to have Boston down and out but were destroyed in three straight games to lose the American League Championship Series.
This year, though, the Central has been dismal. Part of it is that some of the key players in the division (CC Sabathia, Johan Santana, Torii Hunter, Victor Martinez, Cliff Lee and others) are gone to one of the coasts, while more key players (Kenny Rogers, Travis Hafner, Jeremy Bonderman, Jim Thome, Freddy Garcia, Pudge Rodriguez and others) aged, either naturally or prematurely.
And because of this we are left with teams that are like the ruins -- you can still find some beauty and history in the rubble. The Kansas City Royals have the best pitcher in the American League in Zack Greinke, and they have put together a hot September, and yet because of their brutal lineup and defense they will lose 90 games for the seventh time this decade. The Cleveland Indians have gone the way of their once-star pitcher Fausto Carmona, who could have won the Cy Young in 2007 and could be the worst pitcher in the league in 2009 (3-12, 6.89 ERA, 68-67 strikeout-to-walk ratio).
The Chicago White Sox are entertaining because every other day manager Ozzie Guillen tells us how much they stink. They actually have some decent starting pitching and eight players with double-digit home runs, but even with the homers they don't score much, and even with the second-best ERA in the league they are dreadful in one-run games (18-27). It's pretty telling when you call a team meeting and promptly lose to the Royals 11-0 with your best pitcher starting. That's what happened to Chicago on Friday.
The Twins have the remarkable Joe Mauer -- it's a quirk of fate that the MVP and Cy Young winner both should come from this division -- and three other players who are slugging better than .500 (Justin Morneau, Michael Cuddyer and Jason Kubel). Outfielder Denard Span is also having a very good year. And they have a good bullpen. That should tell you just how bad their starting pitching and complimentary players have been. The Twins have six pitchers who have made 10 or more starts -- and none of them has even a league-average ERA+. The Twins have been coming on lately, winning seven of their last eight, but with Morneau out, their pitching so shaky and their next eight games on the road, it doesn't look like a promising setup for a comeback.
That leaves the Tigers. What a strange team. Just about everyone in the lineup except Miguel Cabrera is having a down year. Curtis Granderson's hitting .248. Magglio Ordonez has lost his power. Placido Polanco can't get on base. Carlos Guillen is beat up. Brandon Inge has 27 homers and just 12 doubles, which gives you some idea of how weird a season he's having. The Tigers are 11th in the league in runs scored, and without Cabrera (who has been typically terrific) there's no telling how low they would be.
Still the Tigers are nine games over .500 and in first place, probably because they are 53-37 when Justin Verlander, Rick Porcello or Edwin Jackson start games. This is the thing that will probably push the Tigers into the playoffs -- unlike Minnesota they have three good-to-very-good starting pitchers. Verlander throws 100 mph in the late innings and on any day can be the best pitcher in the world. Jackson has 20 quality starts this year. Porcello at age 20 has been a mostly good third starter, and the Tigers have won 17 of the 28 games he's started.
The odd thing is that those three pitchers could make Detroit scary come playoff time. The key word is could. The Yankees could beat up Verlander in Game 1 and roll to an easy sweep -- the Yankees are, after all, a team with a .361 on-base percentage and a lineup with eight players that have 17 or more home runs. But if the Yankees have a soft spot it is that after Sabathia their rotation can be shaky. A.J. Burnett has been dreadful over the last month (1-3, 6.44 ERA). If Verlander could beat Sabathia and the Yankees in Game 1, there could be panic in Metropolis.
Then again, the Tigers have not wrapped up the American League Central just yet. The Twins are finding ways to win, and the two teams still have a four-game series in Detroit coming up next week. No, this Twins-Tigers match-race isn't necessarily exciting or dramatic. But at least it's reasonably close. In a baseball September like this, you have to take whatever you can get.
LEMIRE:How Verlander got his groove backJENKINS:Tigers' Porcello performing well beyond his years