No matter how things shake out in the Tigers-White Sox series that begins this evening, the postgame manager interviews are guaranteed to be interesting. With Sweet Lou Piniella (temporarily?) retired and Bobby Valentine in Japan, there are no two bigger characters in the game than Ozzie Guillen and Jim Leyland. They're crusty, they're quirky, they have their vices. Sportswriters can't help but write about Leyland's cigarette smoking in almost fetishistic terms. Guillen, allegedly, was more disturbed by the lack of beer in the Oakland away clubhouse than his team getting swept by the A's. Put aside my hometown connection to the White Sox for a second. Forget my desire to see my preseason bitch-slap of the Tigers made to look less foolish. Forget even the residual bitterness most long-term Rockies fans have left over from Leyland's brief resentful run as manager in Denver. The best reason to be rooting for the White Sox to pull off the required three-game sweep is that such an event would keep both Guillen and Leyland on the front of the sports pages for another few weeks. Perhaps we can encourage Lions wideout Roy Williams to guarantee the Tigers will win at least one game.
The first game matches up two lefties who are having atypical seasons. The Tigers will start Kenny Rogers, who usually fades in the second half but hasn't (indeed, his starts have been the only thing keeping Detroit afloat these last few weeks) and the White Sox turn to Mark Buehrle, once reliable, now not so much. In addition to all of the pressure we have been repeatedly assured they don't feel, the Tigers also now have the fresh news that Placido Polanco won't return this year to consider. Every time it's looked like curtains for the Tigers in this cold snap, Rogers has been there to stem the tide. If Chicago manages to get the best of him tonight, that could be the final straw.
As the gap between Detroit and the rest of the American league widened all summer, mean-spirited Tiger-haters like myself kept repeating the mantra that Detroit's young starters would wear down as autumn approached. Isn't it great being right? Justin Verlander and Jeremy Bonderman will start the second and third games of the Chicago series for the Tigers. Both have gone from near-Cy Young territory to bad news since August began. Verlander is 2-4 in his last six starts. The team is 2-6 the last eight times they've pitched Bonderman. The story on the White Sox meanwhile has been that all of those complete games thrown during the ALCS last year somehow ruined their pitching staff for this season. Of course, Javier Vasquez didn't play for the White Sox last year, so I'm not sure how his disappointing numbers fit in there. In any event, despite shaky peripherals the team seems to win when Jon Garland starts (he's 17-5), and Freddy Garcia has been better as of late. Garcia faces Verlander on Tuesday; Garland gets Bonderman on Wednesday.
So upon whom does the most pressure ultimately lie? Well, logic dictates that it's the team that has to win all three games, not the club that really only needs a single win. All of these looming psychological factors aside, when two teams of around equal ability play a three-game series, the chance of a sweep by one of them is very near to 1 in 8, (1/2)^3. I doubt very much that Guillen and the White Sox want to hear those odds. To the Tigers, too, I imagine it seems like a much taller order. The first game means everything, as Rogers has been the staff anchor for Detroit all season and the pitching matchups favor the White Sox in the other two contests. One spot of luck for the Tigers is that Minnesota is off tonight, meaning at the very least they would remain half a game up in the division in the event of a loss to the White Sox. Given the presence of the wild card the division lead ought not to make any difference at all to the Tigers or the Twins, really, but the collective psyches of baseball teams are very fragile and mysterious things.
I hope very much that Rogers and the Tigers do not win in a laugher tonight, because that would make all of the thought I have put into this series rather a waste. I suspect that they will not, but obviously I am often wrong. Had I not been so wildly off about what Detroit's chances to contend were as the season began, I wouldn't have enjoyed rooting against them so hard all summer long. Whether you're joining me in rooting against the Tigers or you're praying for the White Sox to bite the dust, I think the dread Playoff Atmosphere has finally arrived. With the National League's sad general ineptitude and Boston's surprisingly early collapse, P.A. has been MIA during the 2006 regular season. Here it is, possibly borrowed ahead from the NL playoffs, which likely won't have any except in the most dryly literal sense.