Commentary

Twins have slight edge over White Sox in AL Central race

Originally Published: September 25, 2008
By Rob Neyer | ESPN.com

Some call us analysts. Some call us experts. Some even call us pundits.

Whatever you call us, it comes down to this: We're supposed to know what's going to happen next.

Fortunately, no one expects perfection. I say "fortunately" because the White Sox and Twins, who are locked in a death match for the American League Central title, are about as even as two teams can be.

The White Sox have won 86 games; the Twins have won 86 games.

The White Sox have outscored their opponents by 81 runs; the Twins have outscored theirs by 87 runs.

The White Sox have a fantastic record at home, 51-26; the Twins have the same record at home.

Probables

Thursday
White Sox (G. Floyd) at Twins (K. Slowey), 8:10 ET
Friday
Royals (K. Davies) at Twins (F. Liriano), 8:10 ET
Indians (S. Lewis) at White Sox (J. Danks), 8:11 ET
Saturday
Royals (G. Meche) at Twins (G. Perkins), 3:55 ET
Indians (Z. Jackson) at White Sox (J. Vazquez), 7:05 ET
Sunday
Indians (C. Lee) at White Sox (M. Buehrle), 2:05 ET
Royals (Z. Greinke) at Twins (S. Baker), 2:10 ET
Speaking of home, the Twins have four games remaining at home: one against the White Sox on Thursday and three against the Royals this weekend. The White Sox have three more games at home, against the Indians. They might play a fourth home game, a makeup game Monday against the Tigers.

But there are some differences between the two teams.

One difference favors the White Sox: They do have a half-game lead in the standings.

One difference favors the Twins: They don't have to play a single road game the rest of the way.

Another difference -- perhaps the biggest -- also favors the Twins: This weekend they play the Royals, while the White Sox play the Indians. There's not a great difference between those teams in the standings, but fundamentally there's a great difference indeed.

Finally, it seems to me that the Twins are playing from a position of strength, but the White Sox are not.

Juan Uribe

Uribe

Dewayne Wise

Wise

The White Sox are missing left fielder (and one-time MVP candidate) Carlos Quentin and have replaced him with journeyman Dewayne Wise. They're also missing third baseman Joe Crede and have replaced him with light-hitting shortstop Juan Uribe. Meanwhile, the Twins probably are as healthy as they've been all season, allowing manager Ron Gardenhire the luxury of writing whichever names he prefers into the lineup every day.

But the most obvious strength difference between the two teams is that the Twins have five starting pitchers they trust, while the White Sox are down to four. Unwilling to rely on rookie Clayton Richard, manager Ozzie Guillen has decided to ride his four horses as far as he can.

Javier Vazquez started last week on three days' rest and apparently will be asked to start against the Indians on Saturday, again on three days' rest. On Wednesday, Mark Buehrle started against the Twins on three days' rest, and apparently he'll be asked to start against the Indians on Sunday, again on three days' rest. And if the White Sox have to play the Tigers on Monday, Gavin Floyd apparently will be asked to start on three days' rest.

How well is it working so far? As Phil Rogers writes in the Chicago Tribune, "Including Buehrle's start Wednesday, the White Sox's top three starters have allowed 23 runs on 35 hits and 10 walks in 27 innings over five games since Guillen went to the whip."

Francisco Liriano

Liriano

Kevin Slowey

Slowey

Perhaps it's not an unreasonable gamble … but it's a gamble nonetheless. Meanwhile, the Twins don't have to gamble at all. Gardenhire trusts all five of his starters, and all five of them keep plugging away on four days' rest. On Thursday night, behind Kevin Slowey, the Twins are favored to complete their sweep of the White Sox. On Friday night, the Twins, behind Francisco Liriano, will be heavy favorites against the Royals.

If there's a fly in the Twins' ointment, it's this: On Saturday and Sunday, they're scheduled to face Gil Meche and Zack Greinke, who not only are the Royals' two best pitchers but also two of the better starters in the American League. Greinke ranks fifth in the AL in strikeouts, Meche sixth. But Minnesota will be favored in those games, too. So we have to give it the best chance you'll ever see for a team that's in second place on the last Thursday of the season.

No rest for the weary

White Sox starters aren't the only ones being asked to pitch on short rest this week.

[+] EnlargeCC Sabathia
AP Photo/Morry GashCC Sabathia is 10-2 with a 1.78 ERA with the Brewers. In five starts (two on short rest) this month, he is 1-2 with a 2.67 ERA.
On Saturday against the Reds, CC Sabathia pitched on three days' rest for only the second time in his career. He pitched well enough to win but couldn't escape the sixth inning and wound up taking the loss. On Wednesday night, he again pitched on three days' rest, but this time went seven strong innings to beat the Pirates. And don't think he's through, because if the Brewers are still in the hunt Sunday, Sabathia will pitch on short rest once more, this time against the Cubs.

Oh, and why not roll the dice with Yovani Gallardo, too? He hasn't pitched in the majors since the first of May. But interim manager Dale Sveum just doesn't trust any of his starters except Sabathia -- Ben Sheets is highly questionable for Saturday's game -- so Gallardo will make his first start in 147 days. Exactly the opposite of short rest, actually. Then again, if Sheets can't answer the call Saturday, Dave Bush probably will start on three days' rest.

Deciding whether to pitch guys on short rest down the stretch might be a manager's toughest job. It was tough for Gene Mauch of the Phillies in 1964, and it's tough for Ozzie Guillen and Dale Sveum in 2008.

Stranded in Queens

If the Mets wind up in the playoffs, what happened Wednesday night will be mostly forgotten. If they don't, what happened might become the single most memorable moment of the season. Specifically remembered would be what happened in the ninth inning.

Oh, they'd already blown some chances. In both the fifth and sixth innings, the Mets' leadoff men walked but never scored. In the seventh, they put runners on first and third with nobody out but never scored. They did tie the game with a run in the eighth but left the bases loaded.

The bottom of the ninth was the killer, though.

Daniel Murphy led off for the Mets. With a 1-2 count, Bob Howry grooved a fastball, and Murphy drove it to right-center. With the Cubs' outfielders playing shallow, the ball skipped to the wall and Murphy wound up with the seventh triple of his professional career.

[+] EnlargeLuis Ayala
Al Bello/Getty ImagesLuis Ayala, who has nine saves and a 5.40 ERA in 18 appearances with the Mets, let it all slip away in the 10th inning.
On TV, the broadcasters were surprised when Cubs manager Lou Piniella didn't order Howry to intentionally walk David Wright. On ESPN Radio, the broadcasters were surprised when Howry pitched to Wright. Howry did fall behind, three balls and no strikes. An intentional unintentional walk, perhaps? No. Howry came back with two strikes … and then three, as Wright struck out swinging on a fastball away.

Next came the intentional walks. Two of them, to Carlos Delgado and Carlos Beltran. Bases loaded, just one out, and lefty-hitting Ryan Church up next. You probably know what happened next. With the infield in, Church grounded into a fielder's choice, and Murphy was forced out at home. That brought up Ramon Castro -- by the way, was no pinch hitter available? -- and he struck out.

As Keith Hernandez said, "This would be incredible, if Howry pitches out of this."

But it's not Howry's success that Mets fans will remember. If the Mets finish a game out of the playoffs, their fans will recall David Wright's and Ryan Church's failure to hit a measly fly ball with Daniel Murphy standing on third base in the ninth inning of what seemed like the biggest game of the season.

Rob Neyer writes for ESPN Insider and regularly updates his blog for ESPN.com. You can reach him via rob.neyer@dig.com.