Robin Ventura did what any manager would do—create an advantage based on favorable percentages and prepare for a worst-case scenario.
He’ll know immediately if the front end of his rotation shuffle pays off as rookie Hector Santiago gets the ball for the Chicago White Sox in their series finale versus the Cleveland Indians on Wednesday night.
With the White Sox having dropped six of seven after Tuesday’s 4-3 loss, followed by Detroit’s win over Kansas City, the AL Central race has become an eight-game sprint with both teams sporting 82-72 records. It’s the first time since Sept. 3 that Chicago has entered play without sole possession of the division lead.
“We knew it wasn’t going to be easy,” catcher A.J. Pierzynski said before the Tigers won 2-0. “(Detroit is) not going to go away. They’ll keep playing hard.”
Ventura, who has been understated in his first year following the frenetic tenure of predecessor Ozzie Guillen, opted to push back Jake Peavy one day to Thursday against Tampa Bay and keep Chris Sale in line for his scheduled Saturday start after originally thinking about starting him Sunday.
The decision to keep Sale - a 17-game winner - for Saturday makes him available to start a potential tiebreaker against Detroit’s Justin Verlander on normal rest if the teams needed a 163rd game to settle the Central.
Right now, however, the immediate need is for Santiago (3-1, 3.45 ERA) to make his third start a deep one. Ventura has turned to the 24-year-old in hopes the Indians revert to their struggles against left-handers.
Cleveland is 16-35 with a .229 average against lefty starters - 21 points below its overall season average - but has gone 20 for 52 (.385) with two home runs and five doubles in this series.
In Tuesday’s win, the Indians were 7 for 19 with a homer and double against left-handers, but Santiago is confident his out pitch - a screwball - can keep them at bay.
“It’s good right now. I’ve been throwing it for the past two, three weeks when I had those two starts,” he told MLB’s official website. “Those two starts helped me get back into the fill of it. A.J. has been comfortable with it and called it three times in a row in an at-bat, so it’s right where it was at in spring training.”
Santiago has yielded two runs in seven innings while striking out eight over five relief outings versus Cleveland this year. He has not thrown more than 93 pitches in either of his two prior starts and surpassed 70 on only four occasions this season.
Cleveland (64-91), which has won back-to-back games only once this month, is hoping Justin Masterson (11-15, 4.97) can again find his comfort zone at U.S. Cellular Field and avoid losing a season-high fourth straight start.
The right-hander improved to 3-1 with a 2.09 ERA in six starts and eight lifetime appearances on the South Side after a win May 3, and he’s 1-1 with a 4.15 ERA in three starts against the White Sox this year.
Masterson has a 6.23 ERA during his losing streak. He was reached for four runs and seven hits in six innings of a 6-3 defeat at Kansas City on Friday.