Survival is Central theme

Survival is Central theme
By Dan Wetzel, Yahoo Sports
August 21, 2006

Dan Wetzel
Yahoo Sports
DETROIT – If the Boston Red Sox are as doornail dead as they appear, then the American League playoff chase is going to boil down to a three-way, two-survivor battle of attrition in the best division in baseball, the American League Central.

And we do mean attrition.

If Boston and New York is a head-to-head feud for the ages, with each game played out before intense fan scrutiny, outrageous hype and national media oversaturation, then this is a completely different kind of grind-it-out push for the playoffs. No single game, no single series even, seems to matter.

Not even the Detroit Tigers riding a strong start by Justin Verlander to cruise to a 7-1 victory here Monday in the opener of a four-game series against the Chicago White Sox. The win pushed the Tigers' lead in the Central to 6½ games.

Pressure? Hype? Emotional wrought? You weren't getting a lot of hyperbole out here.

Was this even a good win?

"We've got 80 of them," Tigers outfielder Craig Monroe said. "They are all good."

Welcome to the under-hyped Midwest, where ESPN and Fox aren't turning this (or any) series into some statement for the ages – even a series featuring the team with the best record against the defending world champions.

The baseball does the talking here, and the baseball will determine which of three exceptional teams – Detroit, Chicago or the Minnesota Twins – will be left at home watching inferior clubs in October.

This may not be the wildest or most dramatic playoff chase, but it will feature three great teams trying to claim two spots – division champ and wild card.

Ozzie Guillen scoffs at the rest of baseball, claiming that the National League-best New York Mets would finish last in the AL Central and the White Sox would win "150 games" if they played in the NL Central.

As way of proof, he points to the Kansas City Royals, currently 35½ out, who went 10-8 against the NL.

But Chicago plays where it plays, which is why it just wants to stay ahead of Minnesota, who won't shut it down even if Francisco Liriano might. Meanwhile, Detroit just wants to stay ahead of someone, assuring a remarkable playoff spot for a team that just three years ago lost 119 games. And the Twins just want to catch anyone.

Which means that this, despite a sellout crowd on a perfect summer night, apparently, isn't even that big a series.

"We've got to win 95 games no matter who we play against," Guillen said.

Considering the Tigers entered the series having lost three consecutive games – and nine of 12 – you'd think Detroit manager Jim Leyland was at least a little desperate for a win or three. But after a lifetime of baseball, nothing is going to rattle him.

"I was on a rookie league team … we had lost 16 in a row," Leyland said before the game, between Marlboro Reds. "Took a 3-0 lead into the ninth. Two walks, a hit batsman, a grand slam, and we had lost 17 in a row."

What happened to that manager?

"He died shortly after."

Red Sox manager Terry Francona may want to eat some vegetables. Just in case.

"Five-game sweep, at home?" Guillen said. "Oh. I don't want to know."

So, yeah, this isn't life and death – even, perhaps, if Detroit sweeps.

"When we get through this series we are not even in the month of September," Leyland said.

What has everyone nervous is Minnesota, who is seven games behind Detroit, a half-game behind Chicago and in the last two weeks took two of three against both of them.

"They won't fade," Tigers first baseman Sean Casey said. "They've got just a great ballclub. And when you have Santana going out every fifth day, you are going to be pretty tough."

Detroit, as Monroe points out, is the first team to 80 victories, which means, barring a complete collapse, it is improbable that they will be passed by two teams. There is a sense within the Tigers that it isn't so much about winning this series as biding time. If Guillen is correct that 95 wins will do it, then Detroit needs to go just 15-22 the rest of the way.

"You aren't going to make up any ground or lose any ground unless you sweep or get swept," closer Todd Jones said. "You just want to take care of business."

One day at a time. Survive and advance. All sorts of clichés were getting thrown around. They made sense but weren't much for the newspapers to work with.

"Don't get too high, don't get too low," Guillen added.

There aren't going to be any knockout blows in this division, no apoplectic, season-swinging sweeps.

And, here in mid-August, no dead ballclubs. Or managers.

Dan Wetzel is Yahoo! Sports' national columnist. He is the co-author of the book "Death to the BCS: The Definitive Case Against the Bowl Championship Series," which following five printings of the first edition was re-released in a second, updated edition in October. Follow him on Twitter. Send Dan a question or comment for potential use in a future column or webcast.

Updated on Tuesday, Aug 22, 2006 1:40 am, EDT

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