As team sports go, the regular-season collapse is a phenomenon unique to baseball. After all, there isn't much sense getting too worked up over whether a team blew its chance to be the No. 8 seed in the NHL or NBA playoffs, or one of two wild cards in each conference in the NFL.
But baseball is different. Any of the eight teams that has survived the rigors of a 162-game season to reach the playoffs is capable of winning it all. Postseason spots in baseball are a far more precious commodity than they are in other sports. To lose one, or more accurately, to give one away, is rare, especially in such dramatic, unforgettable fashion as what is unfolding in the American League Central.
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White Sox at Tigers1:05 p.m. ETJohn Danks (13-10, 3.69) vs. Justin Verlander (18-9, 3.45)
Royals at Twins2:10 p.m. ETLuke Hochevar (7-12, 6.24) vs. Carl Pavano (4-4, 4.50)
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With all due respect to the Twins -- and with 15 wins in their last 19 games, they are due a lot of respect -- should Minnesota, and not Detroit, be the team popping champagne corks on Sunday afternoon, 2009 will be remembered as the year the Tigers lost the division, not the year the Twins won it.
This is what is really on the line on Sunday, as the Tigers and Twins play their final scheduled regular-season games in a deadlock atop the AL Central: history, and for a sport that cherishes history unlike any other, that is what is making this race so compelling. Six teams every year win their divisions. But what is happening in middle America this weekend is unprecedented. No team has ever been in first place every day since May 10 and lost the division in the final week of the season. Only a handful have ever been up by seven games in September and not lived to see October. It may be gruesome, a sort of spectator-sport rubber-necking, but it is reality: If Minnesota wins, far more time will be spent staring at the wreckage of the Tigers than saluting the brilliance of the Twins.
It doesn't have to be that way, mostly because the Tigers, believe it or not, are not dead yet. Despite having lost three straight, all at home; despite being outscored 21-4 over those three games; and despite being beat with their second-best pitcher on the mound on Friday -- and by a pitcher who wasn't even in the majors until mid-August -- the Tigers should still feel confident as Sunday dawns.
They can take no comfort in having forced themselves into a do-or-die situation, but they can take great comfort in sending one of the game's best pitchers to the mound to rescue them. Justin Verlander will be seeking his 19th win and his team's first division title in 22 years. If there is a concern it is that Verlander's right arm has been worked harder than any in the game this season. No big leaguer has thrown more pitches than Verlander, and only two have thrown more innings -- and with seven innings on Sunday, Verlander will be the leader in that category as well.
He'll be opposed by the Chicago White Sox' John Danks, who knows a little something about these types of games. Last Sept. 30, Danks beat the Twins in a one-game playoff in Chicago with eight shutout innings. In fact, it is Danks, and not Mr. Perfect, Mark Buehrle, who has been the White Sox's best starter this year. He is tied with Buehrle for the team lead with 13 wins and his 3.69 ERA is the best among Sox starters.
Detroit is desperate for a dominant outing from Verlander. After beating his former teammates on Saturday, White Sox starter Freddy Garcia said the Tigers needed to play looser. But Detroit manager Jim Leyland said of his team, "I hope they get tight. Maybe if they tense up, they'll do better." And catcher Gerald Laird admitted that not only was he nervous, but that he and his team should be. "If you're not nervous," he asked, "Why are you even here?"
Verlander can deliver not only a win for the Tigers but also peace of mind to a team dealing with understandably shaky confidence. He can also shift the pressure to the Twins, who will in all likelihood still be on the field by the time the Detroit-Chicago game is over. On Saturday it was the Twins who had the luxury of forcing the Tigers to match their victory, which Detroit was unable to do. Carl Pavano will be starting on three days' rest, having been drilled by the Tigers on Wednesday in Detroit, a game that seemed to render the remainder of the regular season a formality.
Instead, Pavano returns to the mound with a chance to send his team back to the postseason. He has made just one start in his career on three days' rest, back in 2004. He has struggled against the Royals this year, going just 3-3 with a 6.63 ERA, but he'll be opposed by a pitcher -- Kansas City's Luke Hochevar -- with uninspiring credentials, and backed by a red-hot team and an electric home crowd that thought it was coming to see the last game in the Metrodome. (If the teams are still tied after Sunday, Minnesota would host a one-game playoff on Tuesday.)
Baseball folks love to say that momentum is only as good as your next day's starting pitcher, a maxim that held especially true the last time a team tried to stave off a collapse of this magnitude. In 2007, with barely more than two weeks remaining, the Mets had seen their seven-game lead over the Phillies expire heading into the season's penultimate game. They smoked the Marlins 11-0 that afternoon at Shea Stadium, yet the next day their season was over because Tom Glavine couldn't make it out of the first inning.
The Twins have the momentum now, but with Verlander taking the ball on Sunday, the Tigers have the superior starting pitcher -- and thus, it would seem, the edge. That's the very place they've been living recently, however. On Sunday they have a chance to make sure they don't take a historic tumble over it.