The playoff calculus can get a little strange this time of year. Get too far out of both the division and the wild card standings, and you might find yourself rooting for both teams in a late game out west to be crushed by a meteor.
Or for one team to win two games of the series and their opponent to win game three so as to keep one team from getting any momentum.
Or perhaps for a player to get injured, not bad enough to damage his career, but long enough to keep him out of a key series with your team.
If you start pulling for draws, then you know you’ve gone too far.
For the Minnesota Twins, however, the math is very simple. Win and you’re in.
Oh yes, sports fans, the Twins still control their own destiny as September begins, which is odd considering they stand barely above .500: 67 up and 66 down. An 11-4 stretch has rekindled hope that the Twins might sneak into the playoffs, despite months of play that can charitably be described as “inconsistent."
Nevertheless, with seven games remaining against their primary competition (the Tigers) and three left against their closest follower (das Sox), the Twins need not worry about the comings and goings of their rivals, save where it concerns them.
Sure, it would be nice to have some leeway going into the Sept. 18 to 20 series with the Tigers, but the truth is, unless the Twins win those games, they’re letting the Tigers back in.
No doubt, the Twins need to stay close, but the difference between a two-game lead and trailing by two is inexpressibly small. In either situation, those are must win games, and any perceived difference is just that: more perception than reality.
To this end, it would have been nice for the Twins to add Rich Harden (thoughts on this non-deal forthcoming), but almost more for the assumption that they will catch the Tigers and make the playoffs than for the stretch run.
The Twins need consistently good starts from whoever they are throwing out there, from Brian Duensing to Jeff Manship, and while adding Harden would have meant one more settled rotation spot, it hardly ensured the Twins would be headed to October baseball.
Every quality start put together by Manship and Duensing makes Harden that much less important. If they fall apart, it will look like a mistake not to have brought the former A into the fold. If they string together starts like their last two, Harden will look like a luxury the Twins were wise to avoid.
I don't want to dwell much on what happened at the end of the Sox series for two reasons.
First, it was all I could do to keep from vomiting at my desk when it happened, and that's not a feeling I care to relive.
Second, there's almost no way to avoid hyperbole when talking about it.
Instead, let us co-opt a phrase our cousins in the UK adore—call the loss simply gutting and move on.
As noted above, as long as the Twins are within shouting distance of the Tigers when the teams meet head-to-head, the comings and goings of the next few days are largely irrelevant.
However, that doesn't mean that the Twins can afford even the slightest stumble against the Indians. The last two times these teams met, the Tribe handled the Twins to the tune of back-to-back series wins.
The Tigers have one of their toughest series remaining this weekend as they take on the Rays, who are on the brink of elimination after a poor showing against the wild card-leading Red Sox in Tampa. The Tigers have played so well over the last few days, it's hard to forecast them dropping more than a game no matter how desperate the Rays might be.
That said, the Twins' task is much easier than the Tigers', and if Tampa proves to be stiff competition, the Twins must be prepared to maximize the ground regained.
The next few games will be a test of the mental strength of this club. Can they bounce back from a rough loss, or will Joe Nathan's breakdown prove to be the defining moment in the season?
Ron Gardenhire raves about veteran leadership and how important guys like Nick Punto, Mike Redmond, and Michael Cuddyer are to a young team like this one. If ever there was a time for that leadership to come out, it's now.
Where the Twins are after this weekend will tell us a lot about what their real chances are, both in terms of their own play and in terms of how tough Detroit will be to catch. The Twins currently have a 19 percent chance of making the postseason, and if they go too much lower than that, the number will move to zero very quickly.
It is worth noting that in 2006, when the Twins won the division on the last day of the season, they were exactly five games out, just like they are now. I'm not drawing an equivalency between these two iterations of the same club so much as saying that it's possible, and that one bad loss didn't change that fact all that much.