DETROIT – Whatever the ideal onomatopoeia for regurgitation – is it blergh, or mmblah, or rawlf, or huaaaa? – it should serve as the official noise for the American League Central Division, a grouping of five teams that habitually triggers the gag reflex of good baseball.
The Central could today find its prom king, and he is riddled with acne, bad grades and a hooptie. The Detroit Tigers are a feel-good story, conquerors from a conquered city, and if this afternoon they beat their greatest challenger, the Minnesota Twins – braces, trombone player, never kissed a girl – they will win the division and start the postseason at Yankee Stadium.
This is not a pennant race as much as it is a jog, or a crawl, and the Tigers nudged their lead to three games with a 7-2 victory over the Twins on Wednesday night by vanquishing the player who perhaps best personifies the duel: On the mound for Minnesota, in its season's make-or-break game, stood Carl Pavano(notes), he of porcelain body and mind.
And worse yet, Pavano had been the bane of the Tigers before they touched him for seven runs. Entering the game, he was 4-0 with a 1.69 earned-run average against Detroit and 9-11 with a 5.64 ERA against everyone else. When manager Ron Gardenhire finally pulled Pavano following a bases-clearing double with two outs in the fifth inning, he said to his pitcher: "I'd take my chances with you in this situation every time."
To which all of New York responded: Well, which is it, blergh, or mmblah, or rawlf, or huaaaa?
"Carl’s been awful tough against us," seconded Jim Leyland, the Tigers' manager. “We finally got him. It took us long enough."
To do so, the Tigers needed some crack pitching themselves. In the previous day's doubleheader, they exhausted their best starter, Justin Verlander(notes), and their rookie stud, Rick Porcello(notes). And their biggest trade-deadline acquisition, Jarrod Washburn(notes), is hurt, as are starters Armando Galarraga(notes), Jeremy Bonderman(notes) and Dontrelle Willis(notes). All of which left for this integral game, against their erstwhile nemesis, someone named Eddie Bonine(notes), a 28-year-old pitching his 15th game in the major leagues.
His last big league win came 459 days ago.
And to follow the 19 innings of crisp baseball played a day earlier – a departure from two teams that spent the season along a .500 tightrope – Bonine promptly gave up two runs in the first inning, one on a Curtis Granderson(notes) misplay in center field. Had Bonine not induced a double-play ground ball that second baseman Placido Polanco(notes) initially bobbled, he may well have been yanked.
"He didn't look real good," Leyland said.
Bonine settled down. He didn't seem fazed by what surrounded him: 34,775 fans, a respectable and engaged if not full crowd, and a lineup that included the anonymous Clete Thomas(notes) hitting third. Gardenhire intentionally walked Polanco, at one point, to face Thomas, who is hitting .241, slugging .387 and gets on base less than 33 percent of the time. Thomas, by the way, has hit third in 39 games this year. That's for the major league club and doesn't include the month he spent at Triple-A.
Anyway, Bonine went the next four innings without giving up a run, and so excited was he by third baseman Brandon Inge(notes) catching a pop-up to end the fifth inning, he nearly fist pumped himself into a somersault. Bonine caught himself, earned that elusive victory and watched as the insurance runs poured in moments later.
If Pavano epitomizes this series, certainly Magglio Ordonez(notes) does the Tigers themselves. Because the Tigers, in a way, represent their city in how they are trying to crawl out from a mess of untenable contracts – Ordonez's the worst of all. When he signed for five years and $75 million, the Tigers couldn't imagine a scenario in which they found themselves not wanting to play him because he forgot how to hit yet had to because they had no one else. And along the way, Ordonez hit a plate-appearance threshold that triggered an $18 million option for next year, and plenty of grumbles.
And yet Ordonez was the one who crushed that game-cinching double off Pavano, and he has hit .410 in September after finding his power stroke in August. He is not the Ordonez of his prime. He will do, because this is the Central.
Now, this is not the worst group of division contenders baseball has seen. That goes to the 2005 National League West, whose winner, San Diego, was 82-80, the ugliest record for a division titlist. The 2008 Los Angeles-Arizona battle was anticlimactic and the 2007 Chicago-Milwaukee clash more like a tickle fight. To say the Tigers are better than any of those teams might be a stretch, especially considering 14 of their wins came against doormat Cleveland – and they managed to go only 9-9 against a terrible Kansas City team.
Still, the Tigers are 85-73. They've actually got a plus-14 run differential, which is good on one hand (the '05 Padres were minus-42) and bad on another (the '09 Oakland A's, in last place in the AL West, are plus-14, too). They've got a better record than the 1973 Mets, who reached the World Series as an 82-79 team as well as the 2006 Cardinals, who won a championship with an 83-79 record.
Which gives Detroit, and its fans, hope. Verlander can shut down anyone, Porcello is going to be an All-Star and Edwin Jackson(notes) could recapture some of his first-half magic. Cabrera is a bat that can carry a team, Ordonez might have recaptured his swing and Inge's knee could hold up to give the Tigers another bat. Leyland is a genius motivator and coach Rick Knapp works wonders with pitchers and for everything that has happened in Detroit – all the struggles, the strife, the sadness – the fans will be a motivating force.
So goes the AL Central. The prom king will grab his crown, maybe today, and the big, bad Yankees will await. And whichever team faces them will take a deep breath and try to forget this regular season. It's awfully unbecoming to gag on the big stage.