Except for a few days in mid-June and a few days in late July, the Chicago White Sox have resided in first place in the American League Central since May 29. Their largest lead was a mere 3.5 games on July 15 and July 17. It seems that whenever they win, the Detroit Tigers win. When the White Sox lose, the Tigers lose. This hasn't exactly been a pennant race for the ages, but a matter of survival between two clubs more mediocre than good. After all, the winner is likely to finish with just the seventh-best record in the AL.
But it is a pennant race, and if you're a fan of the White Sox, these past few games have been absolutely agonizing. Just a few days ago, the White Sox were up three games with 15 to play. Not a lock, but a nice lead considering Detroit's inability to string together a stretch of victories. Then came two losses to the Royals. And three over the weekend to the Angels, including Sunday's 4-1 loss to Jered Weaver. The White Sox have hit .224 and scored eight runs in those five losses and their lead is down to one game (the Tigers helped by losing both ends of Sunday's doubleheader against the Twins).
With 10 games left, who is the pressure on? The White Sox, who've held the lead most of the season? Or the Tigers, the team expected to run away with the division? Who steps up? What unexpected heroes will deliver the clutch hits or big start? That's what makes these final drama-filled days so exciting. Here are 10 things to watch the rest the way. Buckle up.
1. The miracle Baltimore Orioles.
They won another game in extra innings over the weekend -- that's 16 in a row if you're counting -- to stay one game behind the Yankees. While their playoff odds are 91 percent entering the week, they haven't locked up anything, sitting one game ahead of the A's and 3.5 games ahead of the Angels in the wild-card race. But the Orioles are still thinking division title and their final 10 games begin with a seven-game homestand against Toronto and Boston before finishing at Tampa Bay.
Prediction: Orioles go 7-3 ... but fall one game short of the resilient Yankees, who also go 7-3 against the Twins, Blue Jays and Red Sox.
2. The miracle Oakland Athletics.
Is there such a thing as momentum in baseball? If you saw Saturday's devastating loss to the Yankees -- the A's hit three home runs in the top of the 13th inning only to lose in 14 -- and believe in momentum, then you would have expected another loss on Sunday. That was as brutal a defeat as any team has suffered this season, but the A's bounced back with a 5-4 victory, rallying with runs in the fifth and sixth innings and getting 4.2 scoreless innings from the bullpen. That seems to sum up the 2012 A's: They just keep on grinding and find ways to win. The A's are ahead of the Angels by only 2.5 games, but the two teams don't play each other. Oakland has seven against Texas and three against Seattle while the Angels have six against Seattle and three against Texas. While the Angels have the easier schedule on paper, not playing the A's makes it tougher to catch up. If the A's go 5-5, the Angels have to go 7-2 to tie.
Prediction: The A's hold off the Angels (and the Rays) to win the second wild card by one game, leaving critics to discuss whether the Angels rank as one of baseball's most disappointing teams in recent seasons.
3. Chris Carpenter pitching for the Cardinals.
Last season's postseason hero returned Friday and pitched five innings of two-run baseball against the Cubs. His next start comes Wednesday in Houston. OK, not exactly the biggest of tests, but just getting him back is a huge positive and mental lift. The Cardinals have won six of seven to keep their lead at 2.5 games over the smoking-hot Brewers in the second wild-card race. After three in Houston, the Cards finish at home with the Nationals and Reds.
Prediction: The Cardinals hold off the Brewers, which lines up Carpenter to pitch in the Division Series -- if they can get past the Braves in the wild-card game (where Kyle Lohse is lined up as the likely starter). Speaking of ...
4. Kris Medlen.
Baseball's hottest pitcher will start twice this week -- Tuesday against the Marlins and Sunday against the Mets, which conveniently puts him on track to start the wild-card game. In 10 starts since joining the rotation on July 31, Medlen is 8-0 with a 0.76 ERA and just seven runs allowed. The Braves have won all 10 of those starts and 21 straight games he's started going back to 2010, the third-longest such streak in the live-ball era (the Yankees and Giants each won 22 in a row behind Whitey Ford and Carl Hubbell, respectively).
Prediction: The Braves make it 23 in a row behind Medlen. Does that turn Medlen (9-1, 1.51 ERA, 125 innings on the season) into a viable Cy Young candidate? I still think he ranks behind top contenders such as R.A. Dickey, Gio Gonzalez and Johnny Cueto, and teammate Craig Kimbrel will also have supporters, but Medlen will certainly receive some deserved down-the-ballot recognition. Oh ... he'll then win the wild-card game as well.
5. Three must-watch series of the week.
A's at Rangers, Monday through Thursday. Hey, the A's can catch the Rangers with a sweep! The matchups: Dan Straily versus Derek Holland; Tom Milone versus Yu Darvish; Jarrod Parker versus Martin Perez; Travis Blackley versus Matt Harrison. With Brett Anderson now out along with Brandon McCarthy (not to mention the suspended Bartolo Colon), the A's rotation now consists of four rookies and Blackley, picked up on waivers from the Giants in May. Look for Bob Melvin to rely heavily on his bullpen, but it has to be a little gassed after two extra-inning games and a short outing from A.J. Griffin over the weekend.
Rays at White Sox, Thursday through Sunday. The biggest bump in the road for the White Sox, as the Rays are 3.5 games behind Oakland, barely hanging in there, but winners of five in a row. Matchups: James Shields versus Jose Quintana; Matt Moore versus Gavin Floyd; Jeremy Hellickson versus Chris Sale; David Price versus Francisco Liriano (projected).
Nationals at Cardinals, Friday through Sunday. The Nationals are tied with the Reds for best record in the NL, so these games will have some importance for them (not to mention they haven't quite wrapped up the NL East yet). Matchups: Gonzalez versus Adam Wainwright; Chien-Ming Wang versus Lohse; undecided versus Lance Lynn. It could be either Jordan Zimmermann or John Lannan for the Nationals on Sunday, depending on how much rest they'll want to give Zimmermann before his playoff start.
Prediction: A's pull off a split with the Rangers; White Sox split with the Rays; Cardinals take two of three from the Nationals.
6. NL MVP race.
Buster Posey seems to have pulled away from Andrew McCutchen in the publicity department, so now rates as the MVP favorite. But if the Brewers somehow sneak into the playoffs, or at least a tie for the wild card, doesn't that improve the case for Ryan Braun, who leads the NL in home runs with 40, is tied with Chase Headley for the RBI lead (108), leads in slugging percentage (.601) and OPS (.993), ranks second in runs scored and is hitting .317 with 29 stolen bases? Wow. Of course, the quality of Braun's teammates -- let alone punishing him for something that happened in 2011 -- shouldn't factor into the voting, but we know it will. The MVP race may not end up being so much about Posey versus Braun, as the fact that John Axford and Francisco Rodriguez were the worst late-game bullpen combo in the majors.
Prediction: Brewers fall short of the playoffs and Posey wins the MVP in a landslide.
7. AL Cy Young race.
Prediction: Anybody have a five-sided coin? OK, if I had to predict the winner right now, I'd go with ERA leader Price edging out Verlander and Sale in a close vote. However ... see below.
8. Miguel Cabrera chasing the Triple Crown.
Cabrera begins the week leading Mike Trout and Joe Mauer in batting average (.331 to .323), leading Josh Hamilton in RBIs (133 to 123) and tied with Hamilton with 42 home runs. While it's not unusual to see a player lead his league in home runs and RBIs -- it's happened every season since 2005 (Andruw Jones, Ryan Howard, Alex Rodriguez, Howard again, Mark Teixeira, Albert Pujols and Matt Kemp) -- it's his batting average that gives Cabrera a chance to become the first Triple Crown winner since Carl Yastrzemski in 1967. Since Yaz, only three players have led their in league in batting average and one of the other two categories -- Joe Torre in 1971 (13th in home runs), Todd Helton in 2000 (seventh in home runs) and Matt Holliday in 2007 (fourth in home runs).
Prediction: Cabrera does it.
9. AL MVP race.
So, what does that mean for the MVP race? Trout still has a huge lead on Cabrera in Baseball-Reference WAR -- 10.5 to 6.6. That comes from Trout's big advantages in defense and baserunning, plus a positional adjustment, but it's worth noting that Cabrera's offensive advantage isn't as large as Tigers fans may believe. That said: If Cabrera wins the Triple Crown, that will sway many voters, not that it really changes his value if he knocks out one more home run than Hamilton. The other key, of course, is if the Tigers make the playoffs (and the Angels don't), Cabrera's chances improve dramatically.
Prediction: See below.
10. AL Central race.
This will end in a tie, giving us our only tiebreaker game in a season in which we once dreamed of complete chaos after 162 games. But what a likely matchup: Verlander versus Sale, a rematch of Sept. 2, when Verlander won 4-1 with 11 strikeouts. All that could be on the line: the division title, the Cy Young Award and Cabrera's MVP Award.
Prediction: The Tigers won the season series, so the game will take place in Detroit. Sale throws seven brilliant innings, but Cabrera's two-run home run will be all Verlander needs, who goes the distance in a 2-1 victory with 10 K's. The Tigers move on.
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