MINNEAPOLIS Neither the Chicago White Sox nor the Minnesota Twins have been playing like contenders over the past month. They're determined to change that during the final week of the regular season.
The White Sox will bring a 2 1/2-game lead in the AL Central over the Twins to a packed-and-loud Metrodome today for the start of a three-game series that should, finally, define this slow-developing race.
"We're in first place, so we need to act like a first-place team and go play like one," said Chicago lefty Mark Buehrle, who will take the mound on Wednesday.
Minnesota is glad to be back, after playing 24 of the previous 30 games on the road and going 9-15 in that stretch. The Twins are 49-26 at the Metrodome this year, with a 3.25 staff ERA under the bubble compared to 5.14 on the road.
"We're ready for it. We're going to go home and play hard," said Twins left-hander Francisco Liriano, who won't pitch in the series after allowing one run in seven innings of a victory Sunday at Tampa Bay.
These rivals have been no further apart in the standings than the current margin since July 27. Chicago has been in front for 144 days and all but nine since May 17, but hasn't led by any more than 3 1/2 games since June 19.
"It's like you're fighting for 12 rounds and you know you're winning, but a lucky punch gets you last round and you're done and you lose the title. That's that way I feel right now," White Sox manager Ozzie Guillen said.
Indeed, though his team can clinch with a sweep, three wins the other way would put Minnesota in first place.
"That's what we're here for. We're close, and we have them at home," first baseman Justin Morneau said.
The magic number is down to five for the leaders, meaning any combination of White Sox wins and Twins losses adding up to that will give Chicago the title. After this series, the White Sox host Cleveland and the Twins host Kansas City.
The White Sox have an extra game to play next Monday at Detroit if the teams are within a half-game of each other on Sunday, due to a rainout earlier this month.
If they're tied after that, it's back to the South Side for a playoff on Tuesday to determine the winner of a division the Twins have won four times in the previous six years. Over 13 postseasons since the AL Central was created, the White Sox have qualified as the champion twice. Cleveland is the leader with seven.
In 2005, the White Sox won the World Series, but Guillen said this year's team should be more proud than that one. He also metaphorically predicted a collapse this week would feel like a low-budget movie with a confusing conclusion.
"The only thing we have left and the only thing that can complement that is to win," Guillen said. "If not, it will be a tough summer with a bad ending."
This has been a strange season in the Upper Midwest. The Tigers were supposed to be the favorites after their winter spending spree, but their age showed this summer and they had more holes than most analysts probably realized. The Indians were in position to contend, too, with a young core that came within one victory of advancing to the World Series last fall.
But it was the White Sox with their homer-happy heart of the order and Guillen-inspired spunk who emerged, and the Twins have stayed right on their heels enjoying 23 days in first place, mostly in May with a speedy lineup and better-than-expected starting pitching from an untested group of prospects.
Lately, the rotation has faltered. On Thursday, Friday and Saturday against the Rays, the starters gave Minnesota a total of only six 6 1-3 innings.
"They say they're not tired. They don't feel tired. It's about making pitches. We have to get innings out of these young men. It's still about giving us a chance. We can't continue going into the bullpen for six innings," manager Ron Gardenhire said.
Kansas City will have played the Twins and White Sox a total of 18 times in August and September by week's end, so the Royals have as good of a perspective on this series as any.
Two weeks ago, when Chicago's lead was one game, manager Trey Hillman was asked to rate the race. After praising the power of the White Sox and giving their starting pitching an edge for a greater ability to dominate a given outing, he spoke reverently about the Twins, their lack of walks issued, their offensive and defensive fundamentals, and their speed on the bases and in the outfield.
"It's a tough call for me. I really feel like it's tougher for us playing against these guys," Hillman said, referring to Minnesota before the game on Sept. 11. "Maybe it's because we're here right now playing against them in this dome, where they have a good record. I just feel like these guys might have the edge a little bit, even though the White Sox at times can pitch a little bit better."
At this point, though, analysis doesn't matter. The White Sox have the lead, and it's up to them to maintain it.
"We are where we are for a reason," said John Danks, who will start Thursday. "We know it's a big series, and we know there is a lot at stake. We want to have as much leeway as we can."