I'm not one for hyperbole, not in my writing anyway, so it normally bugs me when I hear about must-win games before, say, September.
This season, however, one series has already emerged as a critical point in the season: the White Sox series after the horrid west coast road trip. It wasn't critical in the sense that it propelled the Twins to greatness, but rather that they avoided collapse. A poor showing might have derailed the Twins' deadline plans and caused them to give up on this year.
Now, with the season seemingly on the edge of a knife once again, the Twins will play their second must win series of the season. Like the first, it isn't must-win because of what it will do for the Twins if they win, so much as what a series loss or sweep will do to them. Namely, it will make their path to the playoffs much, much more difficult.
It didn't have to be this way.
The Twins started off their series with the Indians about as well as one could hope they would. The offense was alive and well, Scott Baker looked as good as he's looked all season, even Jesse Crain seemed sharp.
Game two was a crisis unabated. Liriano looked bad, the offense bailed on him, and the defense kicked the ball around, all combining for a painful 8-1 loss.
1-1 going into the series finale might not have been what the Twins were hoping for, but a series win is good no matter how it comes.
Personally, I was most concerned about Nick Blackburn's performance. Three straight poor outings made me concerned that he was fading as the season wore on. He had been so sharp before the break, so perhaps he had overexerted himself?
I needn't have been so worried; Blackburn looked solid. It may not have been his best outing of the season, but it was more than good enough to beat a lowly Indians team that had jettisoned its best offensive players.
Only it wasn't.
The offense was gone. They managed just one run off of Fausto Carmona, which came without an RBI, and completely stabbed Blackburn in the back. The Twins actually outscored Cleveland in this series, 12-11, but when 10 of those come on one night, that doesn't leave much support for the other starters.
Justin Morneau went 2-for-12 over the three games, igniting concerns over a late-season swoon like he had last season. Morneau hit .267/.350/.481 after the break last season, and while he's sporting a healthy .282/.378/.620 right now, those worries aren't unfounded.
Many are willing to bury the Twins right now, but I'm not. They aren't passed out on the canvas yet, but a standing eight count may not be ill-timed.
If the Twins lose this series with the Tigers, they'll be no fewer than 5.5 games out of first and could be as far back as 7.5 games with about six weeks left in the season. It's an unpleasant thought, but teams have come back from larger deficits with less time to do so.
Don't think its possible?
On this very day, just three years ago, the Twins marched into Detroit a full 10.5 games behind the Tigers. The Twins lost the first game, but won the second and third in dramatic fashion to ignite one of the best pennant chases in AL Central history. It's more than possible for the Twins to turn around their season, but its going to take some doing.
A series win would get the Twins within either 3.5 games or 1.5 if they were to sweep the Tigers (assuming the White Sox don't slip into first in that case).
The pitching match-ups favor each team one night out of the first two. I'll take Anthony Swarzak over Armando Galarraga most nights, and Justin Verlander over Glen Perkins every night and twice on Sundays.
The third night, the game that could decide how serious the Twins plans for contention really are, pits their ace, Scott Baker, against the Tigers' newly acquired toy, Jarrod Washburn. Depending on what happens in the first game, this could be the difference between a knock-out blow and the Twins making a decent recovery, and limping back home alive, but woozy.
The Twins are 6-2 against the Tigers on the season, and chances are very good either the coaches or the veteran players on the team will hold a meeting to get the message across that these games are nothing short of critical.
Of course, all the rhetoric in the world won't matter if the starters don't pitch deep into games, the bats don't give the Twins leads, or if the bullpen can't hold them.
Realistically, I can't see either team sweeping this series. The Tigers will retain their division lead without putting much space between themselves and the White Sox, who look like the team to beat in the Central, and the Twins will live to fight another day, losing little but time.
If ever there was a time to play the best baseball they possibly can, this series is a pretty good place for the Twins to show it. If I'm right and the series falls 2-1 rather than a sweep, then there will be another "must-win series" coming later in the season.
However, if the Twins struggle mightily the way they did in games two and three in Cleveland, this series could be the swan song for the 2009 iteration of the Minnesota Twins.
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