On Friday morning, it looked like the AL Central was shaping up to be one of the better division races in baseball. The Indians had reeled off seven wins in ten games to close a four-game Detroit lead to a 1 1/2 game gap. A three-game set between the Tribe and the Tigers -- the first of three on the schedule in the season's last five weeks -- in Detroit only built up the excitement more. In a year when most of the division races fell apart early, this one looked like it had some legs.
Four days later, the Tigers have a 5 1/2 game lead and the Indians are tied with the White Sox in the standings, both teams further behind the Tigers than the Angels are behind the Rangers in the West. The Indians have six games left against the Tigers and they're not out of things yet, but it seems like a lifetime has passed between Friday and today when it comes to determining the AL Central champ in 2011.
The reason the difference is as big as it is? The Tigers swept the Indians over the weekend, then got to send Justin Verlander out to the mound on Monday night. Verlander served up a leadoff home run to Matt Joyce, then he slammed the door shut on the Rays. He struck out eight and allowed just two hits after Joyce's homer in his seven innings of work, dropping his ERA to 2.28 and recording his 19th win. He's now got an AL-best 212 strikeouts and he's neck and neck with Jered Weaver for this year's AL Cy Young Award. Getting to start him after sweeping your biggest rivals for a playoff spot seems unfair.
The Indians, meanwhile, suffered a second straight tough loss when Chris Perez came into a 2-2 game in the top of the ninth and promptly hit Miguel Olivo and Brendan Ryan (combined OBP: .569!), then made a fielding error on Trayvon Robinson's bunt that eventually set up Franklin Gutierrez's go-ahead (and ultimately game-winning) sac fly. After the loss, Perez tweeted, "Positives from that outing: no balks. Everything else I did sucked."
It's certainly not quite time to give in just yet for Cleveland. They do have those six more games against the Tigers (three more than the White Sox do) and, hey, they're playing the Mariners this week. It's certainly possible things could turn back in the right direction for them as quickly as they've gone south these past four days. Still, they've gone from neck and neck with the Tigers to teetering on the edge of contention in rapid fashion and if something doesn't change soon, they're going to be an afterthought in the AL Central race pretty quickly.
Also last night: The Diamondbacks lost again, the Rangers shut out the Red Sox in a possible Division Series preview, the Pirates beat the Brewers for the first time in 2011, and Cliff Lee crushed the Mets with his arm and his bat. Full scoreboard here.
Tonight's games: The Tribe try to stop their slump with a double header against the Mariners, Ervin Santana and Mark Buehrle try to keep the Angels and White Sox on the edges of contention, Ian Kennedy tries to stop the D'Backs skid in DC, and Matt Cain pitches against the Padres as the Giants try to make up ground on the D'Backs. Full schedule here.