But then we see the beauty of baseball, a reminder that the game is never as predictable as we believe it is. Leading off the bottom of the seventh, Carlos Santana jumped on a first-pitch high fastball and lofted a high, arching fly ball over the wall in right field. And then Travis Hafner swung at the next pitch, another 93-mph fastball up in the zone, and drilled a towering fly deep into the Cleveland night.
The Indians weren't done. Jose Lopez singled on an 0-2 fastball. Two outs later, Shin-Soo Choo singled another two-strike pitch, this time a curveball. Asdrubal Cabrera then lined a 2-0, 98-mph fastball to right field for the go-ahead single and Jason Kipnis' infield hit plated the fourth run of the inning. It took Verlander 24 pitches to get through the inning; 24 pitches that put Cleveland three games behind the Tigers instead of five and 3.5 behind the now division-leading White Sox with the 5-3 victory.
A year ago, Verlander was 12-5 through July 15 -- he would win his next 12 starts as the Tigers went 46-23 over their final 69 games to run away with the NL Central title.
Maybe they'll do that again, although I get a feeling the White Sox will hang around to put up a challenge. And despite the trade that brought in Anibal Sanchez and Omar Infante, the Tigers don't seem as likely to get on that kind of roll. Similar to last season, the Indians seem to be hanging on by their fingernails. Zach McAllister scuffled through 6.1 innings and 117 pitches on Thursday, escaping a couple jams, but he has been the best Cleveland starter of late -- maybe the only one.
In fact, in looking at the rotations of the Indians, Royals and Twins, I'm starting to think the AL Central will be sending two teams to the playoffs.
Justin Masterson, while not quite as dominant as 2011, is solid along with McAllister, but let's look at the rest of the current rotation.
Derek Lowe: Let's be honest, Lowe is staring down retirement. Over his past 11 starts he has an 8.07 ERA and has allowed 83 hits in 58 innings. He has the lowest strikeout rate of any qualified starter.
Ubaldo Jimenez: He's 8-9 with a 4.97 ERA and thanks to a league-leading 69 walks has allowed the third-highest opponents' on-base percentage of any starter (Lowe is worst).
Josh Tomlin: The finesse righty just doesn't miss enough bats to be consistently effective. He has a 5.34 ERA. He had a 5.24 ERA over his final 16 starts of 2011. He throws strikes, but it's difficult to win striking out three batters per start.
Remember a couple years ago when all those Royals pitching prospects were being highly touted? Well, Danny Duffy and John Lamb got injured and Mike Montgomery struggled so bad in Triple-A that he had to be sent back down to Double-A. Even Felipe Paulino, stolen from the Rockies a year ago, blew out his elbow. It has been a lot of bad luck, which means Kansas City's pitching is as bad as ever. Let's skip over the gory details; Royals fans have already suffered enough. But we'll point out the Royals have a 5.40 rotation ERA and that's not all Jonathan Sanchez's fault.
Amazingly, that 5.40 figure isn't even the worst in the league. The Twins' rotation has a 5.77 ERA, which factoring in the overall decline in offense and Target Field being a pretty neutral park makes this one of the worst rotations ever assembled. And Francisco Liriano may soon be shipped out of town (not that he has been that great overall, with a 5.31 ERA). The rotation is so bad that the Twins are still throwing Nick Blackburn out there every fifth day despite a 7.99 ERA. Not to pick on a guy when he's down, but Blackburn has made 15 starts and has just two quality starts. Only six pitchers since 1901 who made at least 15 starts have ever had a higher ERA. Four of those came during the steroid era; one came in 1934; and the other was Steve Blass, who had a "disease" named after him after he lost the ability to throw strikes. Stop it, Minnesota, stop it.
So you get the idea. The Tigers have 28 games remaining against the Indians, Royals and Twins (their final 13 games are against the Royals and Twins; imagine the starters they'll be throwing out by then). The White Sox have 27 games against those three clubs. That's a lot of games against Triple-A caliber opposing starters and it's why I think the Tigers and White Sox can both make the playoffs. That doesn't mean I believe the Tigers and White Sox are two of the five best teams in the American League. It's all about strength of schedule, which we can see in the season run differentials by division: AL East +84, AL Central -134, AL West +158.
In fact, imagine this worst-case scenario for a club like the Angels. Say they win 94 games but lose the division title by a game to the Rangers. And then get to face the 86-win Tigers in the wild-card game. Your reward for winning eight more games while playing in a tougher division: Perhaps Justin Verlander in a do-or-die game.