The Chicago White Sox and Detroit Tigers kick off a four-game series Monday night that could decide the AL Central. And what raises the stakes even further is that it doesn't look like either team will have a wild-card spot to fall back on. Our experts chimed in on this crucial week for both clubs.
1. Chicago is 4-10 against Detroit this year. Any theories as to why?
David Schoenfield (@dschoenfield), SweetSpot: Maybe the question should be: Why is Detroit 10-4 against Chicago and just 63-62 against everyone else? It's not just a Justin Verlander/Max Scherzer, can't-hit-power-pitching thing, since those two have only three of Detroit's 10 wins. I'll say it's just a random event.
Mark Simon (@msimonespn), ESPN Stats & Info: Only one of the seven White Sox pitchers to start against the Tigers has an ERA below 4.15 against them this season. Detroit has gotten to both Jake Peavy (5.79 ERA) and Chris Sale (6.00 ERA), with Peavy having major issues getting Prince Fielder and Miguel Cabrera out (they are 14-for-31 against him).
The other big factor is that Alex Rios has done little against the Tigers -- he's hitting .146 in 48 at-bats against them. Detroit has gotten him to miss on 20 of 32 swings against pitches in the lower part of the strike zone or below, a rate more than double his season rate.
2. Based on the pitching matchups, which game in this series do the Tigers most need to win?
Schoenfield: I think Monday's Rick Porcello-Jose Quintana game is the key game of the series (although Verlander-Sale on Thursday is the must-see one). If Detroit wins and cuts its deficit to one game, you can see the White Sox pressing and wondering why they can't beat the Tigers. Quintana has also struggled his last few starts, so it's good chance for a Detroit win.
Simon: I'd say the first one -- Porcello vs. Quintana. Giving the White Sox a three-game cushion right off the bat wouldn't bode well, and the Tigers need to reverse the negative momentum from their series against the Angels. Quintana hasn't pitched well recently, allowing 12 runs in five innings in his last two starts.
Worn: Jim Leyland may love to play matchmaker even more than a creepy Internet mogul, but at this point in the season the Tigers just need to score and ignore the small sample size on the mound. In other words, they're all equally important.
3. Who will win this division?
Schoenfield: I'll predict a tie. Here's why. They split this series, but Detroit's easier schedule gives the Tigers a two-game edge the rest of the way (16 games against Royals, Indians and Twins). The White Sox have 12 games against those three clubs but also series against the Angels and Rays (Detroit also gets Oakland). Right now, Verlander and Sale would pitch on the final day of the season (given four days off between starts), leaving Anibal Sanchez versus Hector Santiago in a tiebreaker.
Simon: I picked the Tigers to win the division by 20 games before the season started. I'll chop off the zero and pick them to win by two games now on the strength of their veteran players and their starting pitching. The Tigers close with 13 games against the Twins and Royals. They'll make up whatever gap they face within that stretch.
Worn: Unless the White Sox completely choke, there's no way the Tigers can take over the lead with their offense flatlining the way it has.