What looked a month ago like a stale pennant race turned into something more like a best-case scenario, as one playoff position is still undecided going into the final day of the season, leaving the possibility of a one-game playoff in the Metrodome on Tuesday (which looks likely with both the Tigers and Twins jumping into early leads this afternoon). While the one-game playoff is hardly a fair and accurate way of determining the best team - the point being, of course, that the fair and accurate way, the 162-game season, yielded a draw - it is, short of the seventh game of a playoff series, the most exciting thing baseball has to offer. The Padres and Rockies showdown in 2007 featured what was perhaps that postseason's most memorable moment: Matt Holliday diving headlong into homeplate, risking life, limb, and hundreds of millions of free agent dollars, to seal a come-from-behind victory for a come-from-behind team, against the sport's greatest closer (or, at least, the one with the most saves).
Perhaps we can't hope for such drama every time, but the four-game series between the Twins and Tigers earlier this week offered a stellar preview and, again, displayed how evenly matched these two rivals are. After a series split that included a beanball war tensions will undoubtedly be running even higher.
The only unfortunate outcome in all of this is that while the Twins are clearly playing great baseball this September, better than the Tigers, they do not match up nearly so well with the Evil Empire. Due to their amazing comeback, Jim Leyland was forced to trot Justin Verlander out to the mound this afternoon, thus robbing us of a potential marquee matchup between Verlander and C. C. Sabathia in Game 1 of the Division Series. Verlander out-dueling The Big Sleep seemed the most realistic way for the Tigers to upset the balance of power and perhaps give themselves an opportunity to advance.
Having very little other bias in the Twins/Tigers rivalry, I am rooting for the team that has the best chance of ousting the hated Yanks. Given the priority role that pitching and defense play in the postseason, that team is clearly the Tigers. Consider the likely postseason pitching matchups for both potential AL Central champs:
If there is a one-game playoff on Tuesday, the Twins will likely throw their Ace, Scott Baker (15-9, 4.36), on regular rest against the Tigers rookie stud, Rick Porcello (14-9, 4.04), who will actually have extra rest (he last pitched on Tuesday afternoon).
If the Twins win and advance, they will have to face the Yankees on Wednesday (assuming the Yankees elect the series which would give their pitchers extra rest, a probability regardless of who they are playing). None of the Twins presumed top three (Baker, Blackburn, and Pavano) will be fully rested by Wednesday, so they will likely turn to the rookie left-hander, Brian Duensing (5-2, 3.69), who has been pretty good in his late-season audition, but was noticeably uncomfortable in a big start against Detroit earlier this week (5 ER in 4 2/3 IP) and is probably not quite ready for a postseason spotlight...in the Bronx.
The Tigers, on the other hand, could hand the ball to Edwin Jackson (13-9, 3.62), who has had some late-season struggles, but has recent postseason experience (2.08 ERA as a reliever with the Rays in '08) and managed a 1.39 ERA in two starts against the Bronx Bombers this season, including seven excellent innings at Yankee Stadium. One has to give Sabathia the advantage in either matchup, especially considering his 3.17 ERA at home, but Jackson is clearly a MUCH, MUCH better option. And remember, since its invention, the Game 1 winner of the NLDS is 40-16 in the series, advancing to the League Championship Series 71.4% of the time.
In the second game, on Friday, the Tigers would be able to turn to Verlander (18-9, 3.45), who posted a 1.29 ERA against them in two starts this season, whereas the Twins would probably elect Nick Blackburn (11-11, 4.03) over Carl Pavano (13-12, 5.07), in only because Pavano twisted history in the Bronx might be cause for additional jitters. Blackburn pitched O.K. (4 ER in 7 2/3 IP) in one start in New York earlier this season, but has a career 5.89 ERA vs. the Yanks. Whether Girardi goes with A. J. Burnett (12-9, 4.10) or Andy Pettitte (14-8, 4.16), the pitching matchup would strongly favor the Tigers, but not the Twins.
On Sunday, when the AL Central Champions return home, either team would be able to roll out their starter from the one-game playoff, either Porcello or Baker, to face either Pettitte or Burnett, for both teams this is probably more or less a draw, which is probably more advantageous to the Twins than the Tigers, because they have a greater home-field advantage in the Metrodome and feature a slightly more potent lineup.
On Monday (if necessary), however, as Sabathia makes his second turn, while the Tigers could go with Jackson agains, who was 7-3 at home this season, the Twins would probably turn to Pavano. Pavano has yet to win a game at the Metrodome this season, in four starts, but he hasn't pitched awfully (4.15 ERA) and, clearly, he has something to prove against his former squad (2.70 ERA in two starts, neither resulting in a decision). Much more importantly, however, Sabathia is one of the few pitchers in baseball who is not looking forward to the Dome's demolition. He is 9-5 there on his career, with a 3.48 ERA, and in recent years has been even more dominant. Since 2005 he is 6-2, 2.37 ERA. Since 2006 he is 4-1, 1.66 ERA. You get the picture. Whereas in Detroit, Sabathia has gone 1-3 with a 4.85 ERA in the last four seasons.
If there were a deciding game, back in the Bronx, on Wednesday, the Tigers would clearly go back to Verlander, while the Twins would turn their season over to Blackburn. While Verlander, a perennial Cy Young contender, is clearly the preferable matchup, Blackburn is not a worst-case scenario. His numbers were inflated by very poor stretch in August when he lost five straight decisions and posted a 8.22 ERA over eight starts. Prior to that, Blackburn had been outstanding (8-4, 3.06) and since then he has had only one bad outing (3-2, 3.07) and his team has won five of his last seven starts. Most recently he dominated the White Sox, Tigers, and Royals (1.29 ERA in 21 IP) in games which were all "must wins" for his team.
As far as Girardi's choice between Burnett and Pettitte...it should be easy. The expected lineups of both the Twins and Tigers hit somewhat better against lefties than rightes. Moreover, Burnett pitched pretty well against both the Tigers and the Twins this season (13 IP/4 ER in two starts vs. Twins, 6 IP/3 ER in one start against the Tigers), while Pettitte never faced the Tigers and got hit pretty hard (.387 BAA and 4 ER in 6 2/3 IP) in his only start against the Twins. However, Giradi may take into consideration Pettitte's long postseason resume (whereas Burnett has never pitched in October before) and has logged more inning, therefore perhaps benefiting from some extra rest heading into multiple starts in the potential ALCS and World Series.