By Tom Verducci
September 29, 2009

As close a race as is the American League Central, a winner already has emerged as the Tigers and Twins battle to the wire: it's the New York Yankees, the winner's Division Series opponent.

Detroit could have salted away the division by now if not for an 8-11 fade since Sept. 6, when its lead over Minnesota was a fat seven games. Entering Tuesday's day-night doubleheader against the Twins, the start of a four-game showdown series, the Tigers' lead was down to two. So instead of backing off the workloads of 20-year-old pitcher Rick Porcello and ace Justin Verlander, Detroit needs to continue to push their premium arms just to get into the postseason, while the Yankees sit back sipping cool drinks and trading pie recipes, waiting for their ALDS opponent to be decided.

In a most preferred scenario for New York, the Twins and Tigers wind up tied, forcing them to play a 163rd game. That tiebreaker game would be played next Tuesday at the Metrodome, which is unavailable on the usual tiebreaker Monday because Brett Favre and the Vikings have the dome booked that night. The teams would have to burn another starter in that Tuesday game -- the Twins would choose either Carl Pavano or Scott Baker; the Tigers could use Eddie Bonine, Nate Robertson or, on short rest, Edwin Jackson. The winner would then have to hop on a plane after the game and fly to New York to play the Yankees the next night.

If the Tigers have a shot at beating New York, they probably need to wrap up the division before Sunday. That way they would not have to use Verlander that day, allowing him to pitch the first and, if necessary, fourth games against the Yankees with a much-needed rest entering the ALDS. How hard have the Tigers worked Verlander? Here are the pitchers with the most 120-pitch games this season:

Verlander's nine 120-pitch games are already the most by any pitcher in any of the past four seasons. The Tigers have worked him especially hard down the stretch; five of those nine 120-pitch games have come in Verlander's past nine starts. His pitch counts from those games: 123, 116, 109, 125, 126, 112, 104, 128, 126. And that's before he takes the ball in a huge game against Minnesota on Tuesday night. Barring a big lead, it will be difficult for manager Jim Leyland not to push Verlander again.

But there is something else at work here in favor of the Yankees: the history of postseason mismatches. No matter who wins the AL Central, six months of baseball have established that the Yankees are the far superior team. Entering play on Tuesday, the Yankees have 18 more wins than Detroit, 20 more wins than Minnesota.

The Yankees-AL Central champion matchup will mark the 26th time in the wild-card era in which one team won at least 10 games more than its postseason opponent. The better team in those matchups is 14-11 in those series, a solid .560 winning percentage.

But when you look closer at those previous 25 matchups, as the gap between the two teams increases, so does the likelihood that the better team will win. Let's define a true mismatch as one in which one team is at least 16 wins better than the other, representing about 10 percent of the schedule. Now look at the won-lost records of the better team in postseason series when the win gap is subdivided:

Now you can see where the mismatches truly begin. Teams that are 16 wins better than their opponent have dominated those postseason matchups, winning 89 percent of the series. Their record in individual games in those series is 28-10 (.737), which also shows a clear dominance. The only team that did not convert a true mismatch was the 2001 Mariners, who lost the ALCS to the Yankees despite posting 21 more wins than New York in the regular season.

(Oddly, or not, given increased parity in the game, eight of the nine true mismatches occurred from 1995 through 2001, and only one in the past seven postseasons: the 2005 NLDS win by St. Louis over San Diego.)

So enjoy the rare division race between Detroit and Minnesota in this final week. The Yankees certainly have to like it. The postseason is lining up with every possible element tilted in the Bronx Bombers' favor: They have the highest payroll, the best record, a true mismatch in the first round, the benefit of extra off days in the first round and home-field advantage in each of the three rounds.

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