Monday, September 15, 2008

Tough Stretch. 
    While the overall records of the Indians (72-77) and Rays (88-59) could not be more different at first blush, they actual share a common trait which is a winning record since August 1st, playing .595 and .625 ball, respectively.  Though Tampa's success has be more sustained as they posted a .589 winning percentage leading up to the month of August as the Erie Warriors nestled into a .439 winning percentage but both have been fundamentally sound as the calender slips into fall.  Since trimming some fat - notably 250 pounds of C.C. Sabathia - the Indians have gone 35 and 26, the fourth best record in the American League behind surging teams like the Los Angeles Angels, Toronto Blue Jays and Boston Red Sox.  The bottomline is that nobody, especially a team that has played muddling baseball since August 1st (21-19) and are attempting to overcome a 1.5 game deficit in the standings, wants to play either team right now.      
    Unfortunately for the Minnesota Twins, they have to play both...on the road.  So not only are the Twins facing two teams in back-to-back series that are 50-32 since August 1st but they are playing them in a location where they are 92-57 combined on the season.  To make matters worse the Indians and the Rays are trotting out starting pitching that are a 70-30.  These daunting numbers alone are enough to make the most strong-headed optimist wonder where the other half of his or her water went.  The scheduled starting pitching includes Cy Young front-runner Cliff Lee, who since his July 6th loss to the Twins at the Metrodome has gone 11-0 in 12 starts, throwing 91.2 innings with a 58/9 k/bb ratio adding a 2.27 era for good measure.  Once the Twins leave Cleveland they will be greeted by the Rays James Shields who since the All-Star break has gone 7-3 in his 13 starts, amassing 91.1 innings and dispatching 17% of his opponents via strikeout while walking just 4%.  After a brief reprise in dominate control artists the Twins face the erratic (10% bb%) yet hard-throwing (93.8 mph fastball) Edwin Jackson the Twins will be forced to solve many analysts preseason Cy Young candidate in Scott Kazmir who in his 8 starts since August 1st has gone 3-1 with a 3.32 era, opponents hitting just .196 off of him and nearly a quarter of them (24% k%) have heard the umpire bellow "strike three!" in 43.1 innings of work.  To cap off the four game series the Rays present Andy Sonnanstine who has also gone 3-1 in his 8 starts since August striking out 32 and walked only 7.   
    Higher up on the AL Central standings the Chicago White Sox are also accumulating the frequent flier miles.  How does the strength of their schedule compare to the Twins?  The New York Yankees have played .500 baseball since August 1st (20-20), which is a better result than the Pythagorean would argue since they have been outscored by -11.  If they are able to escape from New York with a split or better, the White Sox will be rewarded with a three game series in Kansas City against a team that has been tied for the forth worst record in baseball since August 1st (.385 winning percentage).  The probable pitchers that are expected to face the White Sox lineup have a combined record of 47-39 - but would be .500 if you were to subtract Mike Mussina's 17-9 record.  Following the series opening loss, the Yankees will use Andy Petitte who has been showing his age since August.  In his last 8 starts Petitte has gone 1-5 with a 5.55 era in 48.2 innings of work and opponents have hit .318/.365/.434.  Sandwiched between Petitte and Mussina, the Yankees have recalled phenom cum suspect Philip Hughes who experienced some growing pains in his minor league rehab stint, going 1-0 with a 5.90 era in six starts making it through the sixth inning just once.  In back to back starts against the LeHigh Valley Iron Pigs Hughes failed to clear the 4th inning and surrendered 13 earned runs in those 7 innings.  Though his final two starts showed signs of promise (12 innings, 15 strike outs, 10 hits, 3 earned runs) he will still be trying to find his "feel" on the mound against a playoff hungry team.  Once the team shifts to Middle America, the White Sox take on starting pitching that is 17-23.  This series commences with Brian Bannister on the mound.  Since August 1st Banny has made 8 starts going 1-6 in that span.  In those 43.1 innings, Bannister has had a 27/15 k/bb ratio as opponents have slugged 11 home runs and hit .305/.360/.593.   
    Yes, the White Sox-Twins series in the Metrodome next week should get top billing however it should be noted that these next 7 games are pivotal to the division race.  How the Twins play against the Indians and Rays could mean the difference between leapfrogging the White Sox in the standings entering the final series against the Kansas City Royals or watching the White Sox clinch on our turf.