AL Central Race Heats Up During Dog Days of Summer

With just five and a half games separating four teams, the pennant could come down to the last game.

Ed Millerby Ed Miller

For nearly three months, the Cleveland Indians were sitting pretty atop the American League’s Central Division but fast forward to today and it’s a four-way battle royale.  With the All-Star break in the rearview mirror, the dog days of summer are here and with just five and a half games separating the teams, it might just take until the last day of the season to decide the winner. 

Granted, there are still another 66 games in the season but recent years have shown that it’s not out of the realm of possibility.  In 2008, both the Minnesota Twins and Chicago White Sox finished the season with identical records at 88-74 and a one game playoff was held to crown the division champion.  Just a year later it happened again, as the Twins and this time the Detroit Tigers, both had a record of 86-76.

First place has been see-sawing back and forth between the Indians and Tigers.  The Tigers, who are the current division leaders, are riding a hot offense that is ranked fourth in the majors.  As a team, Detroit is hitting .264 this season and are built for power, as their 94 home runs indicate.  The Indians certainly don’t have any problems hitting either. 

Cleveland is led by shortstop Asdrubal Cabrera, who has been probably the best shortstop this season at the plate.  He is hitting .292, has scored 60 runs and has 60 RBIs.  Travis Hafner has also found his stroke as of late, hitting .321 but has had problems staying healthy.  The same can be said for Grady Sizemore, who just went on the disabled list for the third time this season.

On the other side of the ball, Detroit is among the worst teams in pitching and it could be an issue the team might address before the trade deadline on July 31.  As a team, the Tigers have an ERA of 4.28, which is 26th in the league. The lone bright spot is ace Justin Verlander.

At 12-5 Verlander is having arguably the best season of his career and posted a 2.29 ERA in the first stanza.  He is a hard throwing pitcher who puts in a lot of innings and doesn’t tire easily.  He can hit 98 or 99 mph on the radar gun even in the eighth or ninth inning but we just hope his back isn’t sore, because he will need it to carry this team in August and September.

For as much problems as Detroit is having pitching-wise, the second place Indians have been the opposite and it has come as a surprise.  It’s tough to appreciate just how well Justin Masterson has been pitching, due to his 8-6 record but his 2.64 ERA is nothing to take lightly.  He has matured quickly and making quite a name for himself in Cleveland.

Josh Tomlin has been another surprise for the Indians.  In just his second major league season, Tomlin’s managed to keep his ERA floating around 4 and has an impressive WHIP of 1.04.  These two starters have given the Indians a chance to win each and every night. 

It is the back end of the rotation that has had its problems and been a big reason why the Indians are ranked 19th among pitching staffs.  For the first time in years, the Indians could be buyers at the deadline but only if they can find a good arm that won’t come at a hefty price.

And then there’s the White Sox and Twins.  They have not quite been in the midst of the dogfight for first place but they are lying in the weeds, looking to pounce when the time is right.   

At 47-50, the White Sox have had somewhat of a rough season but are still a game up on the Twins and just 4.5 back in the division.  The Sox have the oldest and perhaps most experienced team in the division but the team’s age is showing, at least at the plate.  Paul Konerko leads the Sox in hitting, what else is new?  The guy has been a quiet RBI machine at first base for Chicago for almost 13 years. Other than Konerko, the Sox have had a tough time generating offense as no one else in the lineup is hitting over .290. 

The Sox have had success pitching though, thanks in large part to veteran ace Mark Buehrle.  Buehrle – like Konerko – has been a mainstay in Chicago for years, providing a strong accurate arm.  He is 7-5 so far this season and has an ERA of 3.38.  Edwin Jackson and Gavin Floyd have also been a solid arms for the team as well, while the Sox big acquisition a few years back, Jake Peavy has been a bit of a disappointment.  Peavy has been unable to stay healthy in recent years but he is 100 percent and falling flat with an ERA well over five. There is no doubt the Sox have holes, so it isn’t unlikely that the team would look to get a mid grade bat or pitcher at the deadline.

 For the Twins, it wasn’t until recently that the team was in the hunt.  For most of the season, Minnesota was bottom dwellers thanks to injuries and under achieving but that all changed in July as the Twins’ bats woke up and helped carry the team.  The team has been fourth in hitting during July, with a .282 batting average, despite only hitting 15 home runs.  Let’s not forget Joe Mauer hasn’t been healthy long enough to get hot yet but could be getting there as in the last two weeks, he is hitting .439.

In recent years, the Twins have been a second half team and after the month of July the team is having, we expect Minnesota – who is 5.5 games behind – to close in on first place if July is duplicated.

As the end of the season approaches, these rivals will see each other four or five more times before one team moves on to play October baseball.  Who will that team be is still the big question and at this point it’s anyone’s for the taking!

Photo courtesy of The Associated Press.