The heat is on in the AL

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More Pesavento – All-Star winners and losers

PITTSBURGH – Four hours before the 77th All-Star game, a great big hulk of a man swaggered like a rock star into the American League clubhouse, and everybody turned his way. He was dressed like Tony Montana in a white linen suit with matching white loafers, diamond earrings the size of quarters and oversized Dolce & Gabbana sunglasses that would make Jackie O. proud. And he was sweating like a sinner stuck in purgatory.

"It was hot out there, man," Boston Red Sox designated hitter David Ortiz said of the muggy weather. "I felt like melting chocolate."

With the ultracompetitive American League division races about to reach their boiling point, Big Papi isn't the only one feeling the midsummer heat.

Not counting its 3-2 All-Star victory here Tuesday night, the AL crushed the National League in interleague play this season, posting a 154-98 (.611) record. If you're an AL club like, say, the Red Sox, Minnesota Twins or New York Yankees, the hardest part of winning the World Series might be simply making the playoffs.

"These guys in the [AL] Central are not playing around," Ortiz said. "It's amazing how they're playing. You've got to bring your 'A' game to beat those guys."

The poor Twins can attest to that. From June 11 to July 3, they went 18-1 and made up only 2½ games on the Central-leading Detroit Tigers (who went 16-4 in that span) and just 4½ games on the second-place Chicago White Sox (who went 15-5). As a result, Minnesota is still 11 games out of first place.

"I can't worry about that," Twins catcher Joe Mauer said with a hint of exasperation. "We've got a lot of games left."

True, but in a division that contains the best team in baseball and the reigning world champion, it seems the Twins' hope is fleeting at best and a Hail Mary at worst. Chicago is on a similar pace to its 2005 championship season, and if Minnesota is waiting for Detroit to collapse, White Sox first baseman Paul Konerko believes the Twins can forget about that happening.

"[The Tigers] are not going anywhere," Konerko said. "The same people who say [that they will fold] are the same people who said that about us last year. Just look at the way they're built. There's no reason why they're not going to go out and win at the same clip."

The Tigers know the public doesn't believe in them. Perhaps the ultimate sign of disrespect is that Detroit had just one player (Ivan Rodriguez) voted to the All-Star team by the fans, a second (Kenny Rogers) voted in by the players and a third (Magglio Ordonez) added as a late injury replacement.

But choke? Ordonez said no way.

"The pressure is on from the beginning of the season," Ordonez said. "We have to be focused and keep playing hard. [Tigers manager Jim Leyland] makes you focused every night and every day."

While things seem bleak for the Twins, they just might have an ace up their sleeve. Maybe even a pair of them.

"You see those two guys?" Ortiz said motioning across the clubhouse to Minnesota pitchers Johan Santana and Francisco Liriano. "No one in the AL has pitchers like that. You want to face them in a three-game series?"

Teaming Santana, the 2004 Cy Young Award winner, and Liriano, a rookie who has taken baseball by storm with a 10-1 record and 1.83 ERA, with closer Joe Nathan (15 saves, 1.75 ERA, .193 average against) is almost two guaranteed wins in the playoffs. But the rest of the Twins' pitching has been unreliable, and the offense (27th in home runs, 16th in runs scored) is average at best, leaving Minnesota, good as it is, well behind the Central division pacesetters.

And the Yankees? They trail the Red Sox by three games in the AL East but are six games behind the White Sox for the wild card, which, barring a collapse from one of the Central powers, means that the team that finishes second in the East could be one of the top four teams in baseball and still be watching the playoffs from home.

Does playing from behind in the cutthroat AL make the Yanks nervous?

"We have [nine] more games against Boston," shortstop Derek Jeter said with a smile. "No, not at all."

The Yankees return from the All-Star break with a three-game series against the White Sox beginning Friday in the Bronx. Count Chicago manager Ozzie Guillen among those unwilling to bet against the Bombers.

"The Yankees are doing good enough without having their guys healthy," Guillen said. "They have so much talent. You take Konerko and [Jim] Thome out of my lineup, we have a problem. You take Magglio [Ordonez] and [Carlos] Guillen out of the [Tigers'] lineup, they have a problem. Those guys win without [Gary] Sheffield and [Hideki] Matsui. When those guys come back …"

There are many theories to explain the AL's dominance this season, but Guillen believes the AL got better simply because of its clubs' need to compete with the Yankees and Red Sox.

"If you want to win," Guillen said, "you have to beat Boston or New York. The playoffs go through one of those two teams."

And maybe only one of them.

"It's going to come down to the last week," Red Sox closer Jonathan Papelbon said. "It's going to be fun-filled. That's what baseball is all about."