If the Tigers win three of four (or sweep all four), they are AL Central division champs. If the Tigers lose three of four (or get swept), their backs will be up against the wall and given how well Minnesota has been playing (and the fact that they'll be playing Kansas City) while the Tigers have been struggling down the stretch (and will be playing a better opponent in Chicago), it's hard to see the Tigers coming out on top.
If they split the series, that means the Tigers need to win just one game against the White Sox to guarantee at least a share of the division crown, and any of two wins for the Tigers, two losses for Minnesota or one of each gives the Tigers the division.
In other words, if the Tigers can take two of four from Minnesota in this four game set, they'll set themselves up well to win the division.
And it's that simple. Win two of four, the Tigers, at minimum, control their own destiny.
Win three of four, they are division champs.
But all of that is easier said than done.
The Twins are 11-2 in their last 13 games, averaging more than six runs per game in that stretch. They've only been held to three runs or less three times in that stretch, though two of those three games came against the Tigers last weekend in Minnesota (and the third coming against likely Cy Young winner Zach Greinke).
The Tigers meanwhile are 8-6 in their last 14 games, averaging around four and a half runs per game. They've also been shut out twice, and scored just one run in a third game.
In other words, the Tigers are either going to need some outstanding pitching, or the offense to wake up and score consistently.
Game by game Pitching Matchup Breakdown
The work starts tonight with Rick Porcello on the mound going up against Nick Blackburn. Both are youngsters with similar stat lines (14-8, 4.14 ERA for Porcello vs. 11-11, 4.18 ERA for Blackburn), but digging deeper shows a slight advantage. Porcello has had a sub-four ERA in both August and September, and tossed seven shutout innings against Minnesota in his only appearance against them at Comerica Park. Blackburn meanwhile has struggled post All-Star break (6.17 ERA) though he does have three quality starts in four starts in September. His lone appearance in Comerica was also a head to head against Porcello, getting shelled for nine runs in 3 1/3 innings on the same night Porcello shut out the Twins. Of course, that was practically a different season, as the game came in the first week of May.
One would think Tuesday would be the Tigers' best bet as far as winning a game, but it's no sure thing. Justin Verlander (17-9, 3.41 ERA) has not beat the Twins this year, and sported a 5.49 ERA in three starts. Verlander has also given up five runs in two of his last three starts (though his outing against Minnesota could have gone very differently if not for a lost fly ball in the Metrodome ceiling). Brian Duensing (5-1, 3.33 ERA) meanwhile has a 1.74 ERA in September, and has yet to allow more than three runs in a start. Verlander may very well need to be on his A-game on Tuesday to give the Tigers a good shot at winning as runs will likely be tough to come by against the young lefty.
Carl Pavano (13-11, 4.86 ERA) has become known as a Tigers' killer this season, as he's won four of his five starts and posted a 1.69 ERA with just one walk against 22 strikeouts. He's been strong down the stretch too, with four quality starts in five tries, and in his lone non quality start, he was still good four six innings and four runs allowed and a win. Eddie Bonine (0-1, 4.60 ERA) will counter making just his fourth start of the year for Detroit. Suffice it to say, he'll need to be just as good as he was in Chicago on Friday night when he yielded just two unearned runs in 6 2/3 innings of work. This matchup really makes it imperative that the Tigers win at least one of the first two games in the series, because the odds will be stacked against the Tigers on Wednesday.
In a game that will obviously determine how the series turns out, we have the most opportunity for a shootout. Nate Robertson (2-2, 5.56 ERA) has been inconsistent at best so far this year, giving the Tigers strong starts against Minnesota and Cleveland, but struggling this past weekend against Chicago and earlier in the month versus Toronto. The hope here is of course that he can duplicate his showing eight days ago against the Twins at the Metrodome, but his struggles make that a question mark. Scott Baker (14-9, 4.48 ERA) has been solid for the Twins all season . . . that is, except against Detroit. He hasn't won in three starts, and has a 9.00 ERA in 15 innings of work. He does however have a 4.32 ERA in five career starts in Comerica, so the hope is that the '09 version of the Tigers have figured him out, and will be able to get to him.
Given the matchups above, here are the three keys to success for the Tigers in this all important four game set:
1) JV must be an ace. There have been a few other times this season where the Tigers needed Verlander to step up and give them an ace like performance. They needed him to in July in the important four game set against the White Sox. He responded with a complete game, giving up one unearned run to secure his 11th win of the year. They needed him to again in August to avoid a sweep in Boston – he answered the call again with eight shutout innings. And now they need him to duplicate that kind of effort again. A win from Verlander takes a bit of the pressure off the team and in a seven game stretch where the difference between 3-4 and 4-3 could make all the difference, the Tigers need a win (and a Minnesota loss) from the ace.
2) The offense must work at-bats deep into counts. This is something a number of the Tigers have struggled with this year, but it has to be a key this week. The Twins' starters are solid, and we all Joe Nathan is still an elite closer, and Matt Guerrier and Jose Mijares have been excellent setup men. But guys like Jesse Crain, Bobby Kippel and Francisco Liriano have proven they can be hit. The shorter Blackburn and Duensing can work into games, the more key innings guys like them will have to pitch. And the more those guys are out there, the better the Tigers chances. Which means, work at-bats, be patient, drive up pitch counts early. With four straight games (coming off three straight games) the stud relievers can't all pitch every night. Opportunities will emerge for the Tigers to get to the bullpen in the mid to late innings.
3) The stars at the plate must shine – especially Miguel Cabrera and Curtis Granderson. We all know this offense (10th in the AL in runs, 9th in OPS) is not a juggernaut. Magglio Ordonez has been reduced to a singles hitter, Brandon Inge is hitting well below the Mendoza line for the second half of the season, and Gerald Laird and Ramon Santiago/Adam Everett are among the worst offensive performers at their position. Cabrera thus far has a rather pedestrian (for his standards) .298/.402/.489 line for September, and for the season with two out and runners in scoring position, he's hitting just .241. In situations like that, the Tigers need to come through more often than that. Granderson meanwhile has just a .675 OPS in September, and that includes his two good days against the White Sox this weekend. While he's had a down year, he's still the second best offensive player the Tigers having created 89 runs, and much of his struggles would be forgotten if he can close out the 2009 regular season with big final week.
Four games, just less than 72 hours. That stretch of time is likely to define the 2009 season. We could be talking about a team that surged early only to collapse again down the stretch, and this time blew their chance at the postseason. Or we could be talking about a team resurgence that happened in 2009, re-establishing the Tigers a strong baseball team and organization, and one ready to make a run for the 2009 playoffs.
By Thursday evening, we'll likely know the answer.