A dismal performance on the road over the past month has severely hampered the Minnesota Twins’ chances for their fifth AL Central title in seven years.
At the same time, the Chicago White Sox have hardly run away with the division - giving Minnesota a chance to climb back into the race in the comfort of the Metrodome.
The Twins and first-place White Sox begin a three-game series that could determine the Central champion on Tuesday in Minneapolis, where Chicago has won just once in six games this season.
Minnesota (84-72) led the Central as recently as Aug. 23, but the Twins have gone 12-18 in their last 30 games - 24 of which were played on the road.
They dropped nine of their last 12 on a 14-game road swing that ended earlier this month, and even after riding Francisco Liriano’s strong outing to a 4-1 victory at Tampa Bay on Sunday, they lost six of the last eight games on their just-completed 10-game trip.
Minnesota remains in contention only because the White Sox (86-69) have also struggled down the stretch. After taking two of three at Kansas City over the weekend, Chicago is 10-13 in its last 23 games, including a 5-9 road mark during that span.
The White Sox lead Minnesota by 2 1/2 games with six to play. A Chicago sweep would clinch the division for the White Sox, while the Twins would take the Central lead if they win all three games.
Chicago would play Detroit in a makeup game next Monday if the race is not decided by the end of the weekend.
“It’s pretty simple at this point,” Chicago first baseman Paul Konerko said. “You don’t need to speculate about a lot. It is head-to-head. If we have a bad series, I don’t think it is the end of anything. But if we have a good one, that should do it I would think. So that’s our goal.”
The Twins hope a return home can help them track down Chicago. The Twins are 49-26 at the Metrodome this season, including a 5-1 mark against the White Sox.
Chicago’s pitchers struggled in the dome from July 28-31, allowing 26 runs while losing three of four.
“It’s our home,” Twins manager Ron Gardenhire said. “They’re the one with the lead and who we have to catch. It’s our ballpark and we normally play well there. We just have to prove it.”
Gardenhire will send Scott Baker to the mound for Tuesday’s opener, with the right-hander looking to rebound from his shortest outing since early May. Baker (9-4, 3.69 ERA) gave up four runs and six hits in 4 2-3 innings against Cleveland on Wednesday, when he did not receive a decision in Minnesota’s 6-4 loss.
Baker had lasted at least five innings in each start since May 3, when he was lifted after three frames due to a groin injury.
While he’s had problems with the White Sox in his career - compiling a 7.99 ERA in seven career starts - Gardenhire seems confident about handing the ball to Baker, at 27 the oldest member of the Twins’ young rotation.
“He’s the one guy that should be ready for this, out of all of them,” Gardenhire told his team’s official Web site. “He’s been around the most, pitched in some ballgames and hasn’t backed away.”
Chicago will have a far more experienced starter on the hill in Javier Vazquez (12-14, 4.32), although the right-hander is coming off a tough start at Yankee Stadium on Thursday. Pitching on three days’ rest, the veteran right-hander lasted a season-low 3 2-3 innings, allowing seven runs - six earned - six hits and four walks in a 9-2 loss.
Vazquez has beaten Minnesota twice at home this season, moving to 5-0 with a 3.19 ERA in seven starts against the Twins since the beginning of 2007.
However, he’s only 1-4 with a 5.68 lifetime ERA at the Metrodome. He’s also had problems with the Twins’ top hitters - especially Justin Morneau, who’s 14-of-39 (.359) with six homers in their meetings.
With a league-high 128 RBIs, Morneau is a candidate for his second AL MVP award. Twins catcher Joe Mauer is aiming for his second batting title this week, currently sitting atop the AL with a .330 average after going 11-for-20 (.550) in his last five games.