Thursday morning, the Detroit Tigers wake up in first place in the AL Central by two games; the Indians trail in second place by that number, and the White Sox are just a small leap behind Cleveland at 3-1/2 games behind.
Simple, right? Not so fast. No team in the Central has taken charge for the entire season, really, and the race will likely go down to the season's final two weeks. More on that later.
This race has seesawed all year. The Indians rocketed out to a first-place standing early on, winning 20 of their first 28 games and having a comfortable 4-1/2-game lead in early May. The White Sox started 7-4, keeping pace for the first couple of weeks, but followed that with a 4-18 slide that put them in last place, 11 games behind on May 6. Meanwhile, the Tigers bided their time, muddling around .500 until a 15-7 surge beginning in late May deposited them in first place. Detroit and Cleveland flip-flopped in and out of the top spot before the Tigers took over on July 21.
So far, that is. The Tigers have Cy Young frontrunner Justin Verlander and closer Jose Valverde, who has zero blown saves all season. But the rest of the pitching staff has kept Detroit from running away; the Tigers have allowed the fifth-most runs in the American League, giving them a -12 run differential despite being seven games over .500.
Cleveland had a spate of injuries that forced them to deal for outfielder Kosuke Fukudome from the Cubs -- a man who had 13 RBI in 293 AB at the time of the trade (he's had six in 71 with the Tribe). Their +1 run differential almost perfectly matches their 61-58 record.
The White Sox have had to deal with a black hole (Adam Dunn) at DH for most of the season and injuries to almost everyone on their pitching staff. After they crawled out of the 11-22 hole they dug with a 31-20 run back to the .500 mark, they fell back, then hit .500 three more times before finally breaking it at 61-60 -- only to lose again Wednesday night to the Indians, putting them back to .500. They've had bullpen woes (although it's been better lately) and no production out of Alex Rios, yet they're hanging in there.
The worst records for division winners since 1969 (in non-strike seasons) are:
2005 Padres, 82-80
1973 Mets, 82-79
2006 Cardinals, 83-78
1984 Royals, 84-78
1987 Twins, 85-77
2007 Cubs, 85-77
Three of those six teams actually made the World Series, and two of them won it. And it seems likely that this year's AL Central winner will be in that range. Why? Because they all have a chance to beat up on each other for the season's final quarter. Starting tonight, the Tigers have nine games left with the Indians and six with the White Sox; the Tribe has those nine with Detroit and nine more with the White Sox. Not to leave the White Sox out, their total against the other two is, obviously, 15 (six with Detroit, nine with Cleveland).
The team that might have the most to say about who wins this year's AL Central is last year's champion, the Twins, who, after a run to near-contention, have fallen back. They will play 19 games against the three top teams in the Central over the season's last six weeks.
The season's final weekend has the White Sox hosting the Blue Jays -- and the Indians in Detroit. Fasten your seatbelts for a wild ride.