White Sox And Tigers Gearing Up For Frantic Race To The Finish

CHICAGO, IL - JULY 25: Alex Rios #51 and Adam Dunn #32 of the Chicago White Sox are greeted by coaches and teammates after Rios hit a two-run home run in the 5th inning against the Minnesota Twins at U.S. Cellular Field on July 25, 2012 in Chicago, Illinois. The White Sox defeated the Twins 8-2. (Photo by Jonathan Daniel/Getty Images)

The playoff race between the Chicago White Sox and Detroit Tigers should come down to the wire. SB Nation Chicago's Ricky O'Donnell is excited for the stretch run.

This year's Minnesota Twins are hardly the same troupe Ozzie Guillen once aptly deemed "The Piranhas", the feisty, grinder-oriented bunch that gave a series of powerful-and-plodding White Sox teams fits throughout the last decade. Those Twins teams had a unique way of getting under one's skin, with their keen baserunning, their knack for turning farm hands into dependable big leaguers, their unbreakable defense, their Nick Punto. The 2012 Twins are a far cry from those glory days of Minnesota baseball, even if they look quite similar: Francisco Liriano is still here, as are Joe Mauer and Justin Morneau. Really, all that's missing is the bullet-proof of assurance of Joe Nathan foiling a ninth inning comeback attempt and, of course, that damn dome that doubled as the White Sox's own personal house of horrors.

So when the South Siders swept the Twins straight out of U.S. Cellular Field to open the week, it didn't carry as much satisfaction as this type of thing historically would. Still, that doesn't mean it was any less important: there's a new foil developing for our White Sox, and this one boasts even more on-field terror, save for some of the Twins' signature annoyance.

Yes, the Twins are the worst team in the worst division in the American League, but the sweep the White Sox just completed was essential. Coming off the weekend bruising Chicago received from the Tigers, they needed those three wins. While it's hard to put too much stock into pounding a vastly inferior team, a large part of playing winning baseball is crushing the teams you're supposed to crush. The White Sox couldn't do it last year and it's a large reason why they crumbled under weighty expectations. Make no mistake: those were three big wins for the White Sox. With 98 games in the books and 64 left on the schedule, the Sox and Tigers are tied atop the AL Central division, each team 53-45. This looks like a race that will go down to the wire.

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Few expected the White Sox to ever be in this position. A lot had to go right for them to get here. Paul Konerko and A.J. Pierzynski each had to stave off the regression that naturally comes with aging. Adam Dunn had to successfully rebound from what might be the worst season for a hitter in baseball history. At some point, Jake Peavy would finally have to turn into the workhorse starter Chicago thought it was getting when they acquired the righty from the San Diego Padres in 2010. Alex Rios would have to keep his every-other-year thing going, a young bullpen would have to prove its worth and the replacements for departed stars Mark Buehrle, Carlos Quentin and Sergio Santos would have to come into their own. By and large, that's all happened on the South Side this season. Add it all up and throw in a timely trade to plug the team's biggest hole, and here sit the White Sox, ready to slug it out with the mighty Tigers for the Central division's automatic berth into the postseason.

In hindsight, the chances of all of these things going the White Sox's way almost seems more impossible. Chris Sale isn't just better than Buehrle, he boasts the second best WAR for any pitcher in baseball (just behind Detroit's reigning Cy Young Award winner Justin Verlander). Dunn hasn't only rebounded, he leads the league in homers. Pierzynski is having an impossibly brilliant season, the best of his career. Konerko flirted with .400 for a while and is top ten in the American League in OPS. Rios' effort is arguably most unbelievable of all: he posted a .950 OPS in June and has a 1.089 OPS thus far in July. That's some MVP shit. Oh yeah: Jake Peavy is finally healthy and is giving Chicago the ultra-dependable performance it needs near the top of the rotation.

It's the addition of Youkilis, who the South Siders stole in a mid-season trade from the Boston Red Sox, that puts Chicago over the top. Youkilis is boasting a .277/.373/.479 over his first 25 games in Chicago, patching the White Sox's third base woes in about the most satisfying way possible.

All of this, and there are still few out there who believe the Sox can hold off the surging Tigers.

The offseason addition of slugger Prince Fielder was supposed to make Detroit a World Series contender, but some of his considerably less touted teammates couldn't hold up their end of the bargain for the first few months of the season. When June ended, the Tigers were just 38-40 and among baseball's biggest disappointments. Since then, the Tigers have been on a tear and are back to showing everyone just how scary they can be.

Detroit is 14-3 in its last 17 games. They employ four legitimate superstars.

After a homer in the weekend sweep of the White Sox, Miguel Cabrera became the 13th player in baseball history to rack up 300 home runs at 29 years of age, joining the likes of Alex Rodriguez, Ken Griffey Jr., Mickey Mantle, Hank Aaron and Albert Pujols. This is a historically great hitter in the prime of his career. He is certifiably terrifying. Cabrera's .970 OPS is fourth in the American League, but it would qualify as only the fourth best season of his career. Which is to say: you can expect the third baseman to heat up during the stretch run, not cool off. Fielder has been great too, hitting .306/.392/.493, even if his home run total (15) is under his usual pace. Austin Jackson is Detroit's real gem, a tools-infused center fielder who has cut down on his strikeouts, improved his walk-rate and developed enough power to become one of baseball most unheralded stars. Verlander, of course, is still the best pitcher in the game. He owns a .242 ERA and a 0.92 WHIP to go along with 142 strikeouts already this season, second most in the American League.

The Tigers made a key trade to fix their problem areas, as well. Last week, Detroit acquired starter Anibal Sanchez and infielder Omar Infante from the Miami Marlins in exchange for highly-touted 21-year old starter Jacob Turner. While Detroit may regret the trade in the long-run, it could certainly pay dividends for them this season. As Colin at South Side Sox noted:

This is Week 17 on the baseball calendar. If it was football, we'd be gearing up for the playoffs. Instead, there's 64 games remaining, but just seven pitting the Sox and Tigers against each other. The Sox will head to Detroit for three more before the Tigers come to U.S. Cellular the second week of September for a pivotal four-game set. You can already mark your calendars: the way things are going for each of these teams, it'll take a head-to-head showdown to separate a pair of clubs each playing very good baseball at the moment.

Ricky O'Donnell is the editor of SB Nation Chicago and the founder of the Chicago sports blog Tremendous Upside Potential. Follow him on Twitter or reach him at richardpodonnell@gmail.com.

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