- "It ain't over 'til it's over." -- Yogi Berra on the 1973 National League East pennant race
For a few minutes on Monday, you had the feeling the Chicago White Sox were getting a little bit closer to over. Justin Verlander had done his job for the Detroit Tigers, throwing eight innings and striking out eight in a 6-2 victory over the Kansas City Royals. Late in their game, the White Sox knew the Tigers' result as they stared at a 4-2 deficit to the Cleveland Indians. They were also staring at their sixth consecutive defeat, a sixth game where the bats looked feeble, and a tie for first-place in the American League Central.
And maybe that sinking feeling of a team in a free-fall.
Then, with apologies to the late, great Clarence Clemons, up stepped The Big Man.
Adam Dunn had homered earlier in the sixth inning, his 40th. Now he faced an 0-2 count in the bottom of the eighth inning against Cleveland's tough, underrated relief pitcher, Vinnie Pestano. There were two outs, two on (courtesy of a pinch-hit walk by Dan Johnson -- remember him? -- and a Kevin Youkilis infield single) and 20,000 White Sox fans on their feet, more hopeful than exuberant.
Pestano relies on a sharp-breaking slider, one of the best in the game, and that makes him especially deadly against right-handed batters. He's a little more vulnerable against lefties, but when he gets to 0-2 he's nearly unhittable against all batters. In 79 plate appearances that had reached an 0-2 count, batters were hitting .132 off Pestano, with one walk, 38 strikeouts and no home runs.
Dunn leads the world with 207 strikeouts. He'd struck out twice in the game. The count was 0-2, a count when Pestano strikes out nearly half the batters he faces. If you were a betting kind of person, this one was off the board: Pestano would get the K.
This, of course, is baseball ... pennant-race baseball ... in which it ain't over 'til it's over.
Pestano doesn't throw his slider. He throws a 92-mph four-seam fastball. Pretty much down the middle of the plate.
The Big Man doesn't miss, lofting the ball to right-center, just a few feet beyond the railing, a three-run homer that White Sox announcer Hawk Harrelson understandably calls the biggest hit of the season for the Sox. Hope turns to exuberance, White Sox players leap out of the dugout and Chicago holds on for a 5-4 victory.
Before the game, Dunn had told MLB.com, "You can't worry about what other teams are doing. We are in first place. That's what people are still forgetting. We are in first place. If we win as many games as we can and we play well, we will make the playoffs. When you have a lead, you don't have to scoreboard watch. It's nice if we win and they lose, but if we win them all and they win them all, guess who goes? We just have to take a step back and relax. We have to realize we are in first place and in a really, really good position."
If you're the Tigers, you've been trying to get over that hump and into first place since late July. The Tigers caught the White Sox for one day on Sept. 2, after Verlander had defeated Chris Sale, but the Sox have held first by themselves every day since July 27. And now the Tigers just fired their best bullet. They have one more Verlander start left. That means eight games in which Verlander doesn't start. The White Sox are 1 game up.
Who do you like?
I will say this: If the Tigers do win the division, I wouldn't want to play them in a five-game series, not with Verlander lined up to start Game 1 in Detroit and then again in Game 5. For example, if the New York Yankees win the AL East, they'll likely play the AL Central champ (with the Texas Rangers playing the wild-card winner). So you get CC Sabathia opening up against Verlander at Comerica Park. If the Tigers win that one, the Yankees face the pressure of maybe having to win three in a row.
Ben Lindbergh of Baseball Prospectus wrote an ESPN Insider piece a few days ago that argues having an ace isn't the huge bonus in October everyone believes it is:
- To do that, Baseball Prospectus director of research Colin Wyers selected the ace of each playoff team from the one-wild-card era of 1994-2011, defining the ace as the starter who pitched at least 120 innings with the lowest ERA. Then he came up with a normalized measure of ace-ness, similar to ERA+, that allowed us to place all the aces on the same scale. Finally, he checked the correlation between the strength of each team's ace and the difference between its winning percentages in the regular season and the postseason.
The result? A statistically insignificant correlation of 0.02. (A correlation of 1.0 is perfect, minus-1.0 is the opposite.) Park-adjusting the stats didn't strengthen the correlation. Neither did defining ace as the starter with the highest WARP. Neither did running the study again using only pitchers who pitched in the playoffs, so as not to skew the results by including teams whose regular-season aces weren't available in October. However we sliced and diced the data, we couldn't find any evidence that the strength of a team's top starter alone helped dictate how it would do.
Of course, Verlander isn't any ordinary ace. Ben's point is valid: There's no guarantee Verlander would beat a quality pitcher in Sabathia (with a better team behind him) twice. Still, it's Verlander. He certainly can carry a team in a short five-game series, even one that could own just the seventh-best record in the AL.
But the Tigers have to find a way to get there and Dunn just made that more difficult. It may be a little much to say that Dunn saved the White Sox season with that home run, but it's not too much to say that one win could likely be the difference in nine days.
With Max Scherzer -- second in the AL in strikeouts to Verlander -- pulled early two starts ago with shoulder fatigue and struggling in his last start, he's not as locked in as he appeared 10 days ago. Doug Fister is solid, but I'd give Chicago's rotation depth a slight edge right now (although their own ace, Sale, also pitched on Monday).
One more interesting note: Scherzer is on track to start the season finale. But if the Tigers need a win, would Jim Leyland start Verlander on three days' rest?
I guess we can worry about that in nine days. As Yogi might say, "When you arrive at a fork in the road, take it."
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