The Detroit Tigers have as large a cushion in the American League Central Division as any team in several years, going 17-6 leading into the All-Star break. But the teams trailing them don't view that 61/2-game lead as insurmountable.
"Any team has a chance to do something special in the second half," Kansas City outfielder Alex Gordon said during the All-Star Game that was played Tuesday at Target Field.
And the Tigers are aware of that. They have led at the break in previous seasons and held that lead. They've also lead at the break and blown the division.
"It's going to take a collective effort from everyone to keep playing as well as we have to be able to win the AL Central," Tigers righthander Max Scherzer said. "It's going to be a challenge, because the Royals and Indians are very good ballclubs and will be tough."
As the post-All-Star schedule begins Friday, the Tiger Watch will begin. Can Detroit, which holds the biggest edge of any division leader in baseball, pull away with the title? Will Kansas City and Cleveland get hot and put pressure on the leaders? If the White Sox and Twins don't pull off an unexpected comeback, will they at least make things interesting?
"Everyone has gotten better," Royals reliever Greg Holland said. "The Twins have gotten better, we have gotten better. Chicago has gotten better offensively. I think it's going to be a fun second half. I expect a lot of good, close games like the last couple of years."
Over the past five years, the team that has led the AL Central at the All-Star break has gone on to win the division only twice. When the Twins won the Central in 2009, they were in third place and four games back of Detroit at the break but ended up winning the division thanks to a memorable Game 163. In 2010, they came back to win from third again, 31/2 games behind the White Sox at the break.
But no team in those five years had a lead as big as the Tigers, at 53-38, do now. Blowing a 31/2-game lead is one thing. Blowing a 61/2-game lead is another.
With a deep rotation, anchored by former Cy Young winners Scherzer and Justin Verlander, it appears unlikely the Tigers will fall apart.
"We're in first place right now and it is great," Scherzer said. "But these things can evaporate in a heartbeat. We have to continue to play as good as we did in the first half."
What could slow the Tigers down is their bullpen. Closer Joe Nathan, a former Twin, has been awful at times this season, going 4-2 with a 5.61 ERA and five blown saves. Reliever Al Alburquerque is tied for third in the league in appearances (45) and seems to appear in every game the Twins face the Tigers. Trading for bullpen depth could lock up the division.
On paper, that is. On the field, baseball is unpredictable, giving hope to the four teams chasing the Tigers:
- The Royals (48-46) really struggled at the plate at the beginning of the season and don't have a lot of power. A 14-4 run in late May and early June briefly landed them in first place. They are fourth in the league in batting with runners in scoring position, which needs to continue in order for them to chase down the Tigers.
- Cleveland (47-47) has been slowed because of injuries, but All-Star outfielder Michael Brantley and third baseman Lonnie Chisenhall have had breakout seasons. The Indians, however, might be the worst defensive team in the division, which could cost them.
"We've kind of played almost like last year, where if we show up and play well in the second half, we have a chance to have very meaningful games down the stretch," Cleveland manager Terry Francona said. "When that happens, you never know what can happen."
- Chicago (45-51) looks to have a short roster. But they have one of the top pitchers in the game in lefthander Chris Sale (8-1, 2.08 ERA) and teams fear rookie first baseman Jose Abreu, who has a league-leading 29 home runs.
"(Abreu) changes the complexion of their lineup," Scherzer said.
- The Twins, 44-50, are the caboose of this train. After losing at least 96 games in each of the past three seasons, they are on pace to go 76-86.
Twins players, despite being a whopping 101/2 games behind Detroit and 61/2 back in the wild card, don't feel the gap between them and the rest of the division is that great. They will have to do plenty of convincing, because they have been unable to put all facets of the game together for any stretch of time. And they haven't stayed healthy.
"We have to become a good team rather than an inconsistent team," closer Glen Perkins said.
Perhaps no team in the division has more important players on the disabled list than the Twins. Shortstop Danny Santana (left knee bone bruise) could return this weekend against Tampa Bay and return to the top of the batting order, which the Twins sorely need. First baseman Joe Mauer (right oblique strain) was starting to hit like previous years before his injury, but he might need a couple more weeks to recover. Righthander Ricky Nolasco (right elbow strain) is out indefinitely, too, and has not pitched like the staff ace the Twins need him to be.
For the Twins to back up their claims that their best baseball will come in the second half, they will need those three players back in the lineup. Then they can work on climbing up the standings.
"We'll see how it goes," righthander Phil Hughes said. "No one has given up."