It took 163 games last year to decide which team would represent the American League Central in the postseason.
We will see another captivating division finish as the Detroit Tigers (83-72) host the Minnesota Twins (81-74) in a four game series that could determine the AL Central champion, as I predicted here and here.
The AL Central gets ridiculed for being the weakest division, but it still provides the best playoff race, as we've seen over the past couple years. Here's a breakdown of the upcoming series:
Monday, 9/28: Nick Blackburn (11-11, 4.18 ERA) vs. Rick Porcello (14-9, 4.14 ERA)
Minnesota's Nick Blackburn started off the season great, and then struggled during the second half. However, he's looked like he's turned it around again.
In his last two games, against AL Central rivals Chicago and Cleveland, Blackburn lasted 6.1 and 7.0 innings, respectively. He only yielded two earned runs against the Indians and posted a shutout against the White Sox. Most impressively, Blackburn didn't give up a walk in either start.
Blackburn has two starts against Detroit so far this year. One start was brilliant, the other was awful. In the first game, he only lasted 3.1 innings while yielding six earned runs. In the second game, however, he hurled a complete game and gave up only one earned run.
Detroit's Rick Porcello has had an excellent September thus far. In five starts this month, he's 3-1 with a 3.60 ERA. Three out of his five starts were quality starts, too. He also averaged 6.0 innings pitched a game in this five game stretch.
Porcello has three starts against Minnesota so far this year. He's looked good against the Twins, despite a 1-2 record. In 17.0 innings pitched, he has a 3.71 ERA.
The Twins player to watch is Jason Kubel. In eight at-bats against Porcello, Kubel has seven hits (.875 avg), including two doubles.
The Tigers player to watch is Miguel Cabrera. In 13 at-bats against Blackburn, Cabrera has five hits (.385 avg), including six RBI.
Prediction: Detroit 5, Minnesota 4. Expect Miguel Cabrera to continue what he's done all year for the Tigers.
Tuesday, 9/29: Brian Duensing (5-1, 3.33 ERA) vs. Justin Verlander (17-9, 3.41 ERA)
The Twins' Brian Deunsing has had a great September thus far. In five starts he's 3-0 with a 1.74 ERA and 17 strikeouts in 31.0 innings pitched.
Duensing has only given up two home runs on the road this season, and keeping the walks and homers down against the Tigers is going to be vital to his success.
This year against Detroit, Duensing has looked great. In three appearances, including one start, he's pitched 14.2 innings. His 0.61 ERA is great as are his eight strikeouts (compared to two walks). In his last start against Detroit, he lasted 6.1 innings yielding only one earned run.
Alternatively the Tigers' Justin Verlander has had an inconsistent September to say the least. In his two most recent starts he has yielded a total of ten earned runs. However, Verlander has an ERA of 1.71 in his other two September starts.
This year against Minnesota Verlander hasn't been good. In three starts, he's 0-2 with a 5.49 ERA. He has given up five earned runs each of the last two outings.
The Twins player to watch is Joe Mauer. In 33 at-bats against Verlander, Mauer has 13 hits (.394 avg), including three home runs and eight RBI.
The Tigers player to watch is Marcus Thames. Thames is the only player with more than one hit against Duensing.
Prediction: Minnesota 6, Detroit 2. Expect the Twins to get to Verlander again, and to put on a Mauer Power show.
Wednesday, 9/30: Carl Pavano (13-11, 4.86 ERA) vs. Eddie Bonine (0-1, 4.60 ERA)
Minnesota's Carl Pavano has had a good September. In his last five starts, he's 2-1 with a 3.62 ERA and 32 strikeouts in 32.1 innings pitched. Four out of these five starts were quality starts. However, Pavano has given up multiple home runs in two of those games.
This year against Detroit Pavano has been brilliant. In five starts, he's 4-0 with a 1.69 ERA. In 37.1 innings pitched, he has 22 strikeouts and only one walk. Pavano could prove to be a vital pickup if he continues his mastery of the Tigers.
Detroit's Eddie Bonine has also had a good September. In fact, in his last start against the White Sox he had a no-hitter through the sixth inning.
Bonine also has a 2.35 ERA this month. He must keep the walks to a minimum, unlike his last game. Bonine has yet to face Minnesota this year.
There is no Twins player to watch since no Twin has faced Bonine yet. But look for Denard Span (eight hits, six RBI in last three games) to continue his good play against righties.
The Tigers player to watch is Aubrey Huff. He has yet to come up big for the Tigers, but in 21 at-bats against Pavano he has six hits, including a home run and five RBI.
Prediction: Minnesota 3, Detroit 2. Expect Pavano to continue his dominance of the Tigers in a low-scoring game.
Thursday, 9/31: Scott Baker (14-9, 4.48 ERA) vs. Nate Robertson (2-2, 5.56 ERA)
The Twins' Scott Baker has not looked good in his last two starts against the Royals and Tigers. He yielded four earned runs in each start. In his other three September starts, he had a 3.50 ERA and was hurling quality stuff. A good thing for Baker is that he only walked two batters total in those two not-so-good starts.
This year against Detroit Baker has looked awful. In three starts he's 0-1 with a 9.00 ERA. Baker failed to get past the fifth inning in his past two starts against the Tigers. The Tigers are also batting a whopping .358 against him this year.
Detroit's Nate Robertson has looked inconsistent all year, and his September numbers are not good. He's made five appearances, including four starts, with a 1-1 record and a 3.86 ERA. Robertson has failed to last past the fifth inning in his last three starts.
Robinson has made one start against Minnesota this year. He was effective, only yielding two earned runs. He struck out six, but did walk three batters. The question is: Which Robertson is going to show up?
The Twins player to watch is Brendan Harris. In 19 at-bats against Robertson, Harris has seven hits (.368 avg), including two home runs and four RBI.
The Tigers player to watch is Magglio Ordonez. In 36 at-bats against Baker, Ordonez has 16 hits (.444 avg), including two home runs and six RBI.
Prediction: Minnesota 10, Detroit 7. Scott Baker is the Twins ace and he will show up for this game.
D.A.'s three keys to the series:
3. Defense—it may seem simple and basic, but MLB.com breaks it down pretty well here. Any silly mistake could cost either team the chance to play in the playoffs. The Tigers have allowed three unearned runs in the past week and the Twins have allowed two. These are going to be close pitching match-ups, so the teams must make each other earn their runs.
2. Rookies—what a big moment for rookies, especially rookie starting pitchers Rick Porcello and Brian Duensing. They're going to have to keep their cool and just keep their teams in the ball game. If they try to do too much, we all know the negative consequences that can ensue.
1. M(auer/iguel)ost Valuable Players—taking your team to the playoffs is where MVPs are born. If Joe Mauer can have a huge series (and not flop like game 163 last year) and propel the Twins to the playoffs, the MVP is guaranteed for him. Miguel Cabrera also has an outside shot at the award. If he continues to shoulder the load in this series, we'll know there hasn't been a more valuable player to his team.