By Joe Storms
The highly anticipated three game weekend series between the Twins and Tigers will hopefully give baseball fans the drama and excitement of a September divisional battle that otherwise seems to be missing this season. The Twins trail the Tigers by 4 games with 16 games remaining for both teams. But does Minnesota have a realistic chance at stealing their first division crown since 2006?
The Twins and Tigers play each other 7 times in the final 16 games, but Detroit also has the added challenge of facing the Chicago White Sox 6 more times before the division is decided. The challenges for Detroit don’t end with just the schedule either. The pitching staff suddenly seems full of holes as recently acquired starting pitcher Jarrod Washburn is out of the rotation for the time being with a knee injury. His replacement for Sunday’s game, Nate Robertson, has battled his own injury problems this season and since the start of 2008, is 1-2 with an ERA of 6.57 against the Twins. Their starter for Saturday is ace Justin Verlander, but he too has struggled against Minnesota. Since 2007, the right-hander has suffered a 1-4 record with a 5.40 ERA at the hands of the division rival. Also, All-star Edwin Jackson seems to be slowing down after a strong season as he is only 2-2 with a 6.03 ERA in his last five starts, which also could raise a legitimate concern about 20 year old rookie sensation and Friday night’s starter Rick Porcello. Already having pitched 148 innings this year, does he have the conditioning and arm strength to avoid the end-of-the-season slump that plagues so many young pitchers when they first enter the majors?
Meanwhile, the Twins have also faced injury problems of their own but seem to be rallying around it, unlike the Tigers who have lost 7 of their last 10. They have scrapped together a four game win streak since learning their former MVP, Justin Morneau, is done for the season due to a stress fracture in his back. A struggling Morneau of late may have even been holding back the Twins. Since August 15th, when Morneau’s batting average finally dipped below .300 for the first time since April 28th, Morneau batted .100 (7 for 70) and the Twins have posted a respectable 18-13 record. A closer look, however, shows that they are 9-1 in games without Morneau and only 9-12 when he played. A big reason is due to timely hitting and guys stepping up their game to compensate for his absence. The Twins are hitting .274 with runners in scoring position this season but in those games without Morneau the number jumps up to .352. The main reason for the jump is due to Michael Cuddyer and MVP candidate Joe Mauer as both seem to have stepped up their play with the first baseman out. In those 10 games, Cuddyer is batting .419 with 13 RBIs, 6 doubles and 5 homeruns and Mauer is hitting .500 with 9 RBIs and 3 homeruns.
Minnesota and Detroit enter the weekend series and the last few weeks on the schedule fighting for their playoff lives while battling key injuries with questions and concerns sprinkled through their lineup. The Tigers lately have played like they are just holding on and hoping time runs out on the Twins. Even though Detroit has a 4 game lead in the division, the eventual winner will be the team that overcomes the obstacles, rallies around each other and gets hot at the right time. It has all of the makings for an exciting finish…
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