The Cuyahoga MUST burn. The Tigers enter this weekend’s series against the Indians 1 game back in the AL Central (and for all intents and purposes a non-factor in the Wild Card race) with 17 games left to play. The Indians – make no mistake – are a poor team in 2012. Nonetheless, the Tigers have managed to hobble to a 6-9 record against them (despite outscoring them by 10). This series is bookended by games against the rival White Sox. Couple that with the Tigers poor overall record of success on the road this season and you have a recipe for disaster.
Those nasty White Sox will be playing 3 games in Minnesota against the only AL team worse than Cleveland – so the odds are pretty good that if the Tigers do not win this series they will find themselves more than a game back by the time they play that make up game Monday. Hoping to make the playoffs by winning head-to-head and coasting through games against weak opponents just isn’t going to cut it. The White Sox play those weak divisional opponents too, and they have tended to clobber them. The Tigers are 63-62 against non-White-Sock-opponents. The White Sox are 71-54 against non-Tiger-opponents. That gap has got to narrow, or the Tigers aren’t going anywhere this postseason (and won’t deserve to).
If, and that is a big IF, the Tigers can pull even with Chicago by Tuesday morning I would put their playoff odds well over 50%. They will have some tough games against the strangely potent Oakland A’s (or “overachieving Potemkin A’s”, depending on your perspective) but they have 10 out of their last 13 at home and 10 out of their last 13 against the Royals and Twins. The White Sox don’t have a spectacularly difficult finish to the season, but they do have 3 games on the road against the Angels (and I’d definitely rather play the A’s at home than the Angels on the road) and finish with a 4 game set at home against Tampa Bay. What happens if the Tigers remain 2 or 3 back on Tuesday morning? They still need to go on a great run against those scrubs they have left on the schedule, but they also need the White Sox to struggle. If they don’t? Tough.
We are in the thick of one of the most intense pennant races in modern Tigers’ history. Why? There is no net! In 2006 and 2009 the Tigers faded down the stretch to lose big divisional leads. Those were probably epic pennant races for Twins fans, but not for Tigers fans. 2011 was a laugher. Strangely, it doesn’t seem like Tigers fans (and the Tigers blogosphere) are as invested in this as one would expect. Blame high expectations. What we are witnessing is a neck-and-neck down-to-the-wire pennant race, but it still feels a bit like a slow unraveling since we all though we’d be up by 10 games at this point. A repeat of 2009 would feel like a huge disappointment, whereas in 2009 it felt like something very close to success.
That huge disappointment is not written in stone. All it take to avoid it is to finish one game ahead of Dunn & Co. and it needs to start tonight where we have Justin Verlander going up against some dude named Corey Kluber with his 5.56 career ERA. Tomorrow we’ll be up against the Indians’ ace Justin Masterson and his 4.96 ERA. Who will Rick Porcello be facing on Sunday? They don’t know. That’s what a shambles this Cleveland team is right now. These aren’t just winnable games, they are must win games.