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The Last Interesting AL Race

Fans of National League baseball will find joy this September. The largest gap between first and second place is six games, and the Cardinals are certainly good enough to make up some ground and turn the Central back into a competitive race. Philadelphia sits just a half game behind Atlanta in the East and 1.5 games ahead of San Francisco in the Wild Card. Colorado and St. Louis also sit within five games of the Wild Card. Seven teams vying for four spots tends to create some interesting baseball. Unfortunately for AL fans, the races aren’t nearly as compelling.

The AL East and AL Wild Card races are all but over. True, the White Sox are six back of the Wild Card, while the Red Sox are just a half-game behind that pace. The difference between the AL Wild Card and the NL Central, of course, is the quality of the teams involved. At 83-54 Tampa Bay owns the league’s second-best record. It would be much more difficult for Chicago or Boston to overtake a team that strong than it would be for St. Louis to overtake a Cincinnati team that is not without flaw. That leaves just one race, the AL Central, up for grabs.

The White Sox are within 3.5 games of the Twins, and it looks like they’ll need more than just a hot streak to close the gap. They have, in fact, been on quite the streak, rattling off seven straight victories. But in that span they’ve gained just one game on the Twins, thanks to the Twins winning 9 of their last 11. If both teams remain hot their seasons could be determined during their three-game set starting September 14th. Outside of that, neither team plays a particularly tough schedule the rest of the way.

The Twins clearly have the advantage here — not just for their 3.5 game lead, but also for the way they’ve played since early July. Exactly three months ago Justin Morneau suffered a concussion and hasn’t played a game since. Minnesota lost that game, dropping them to 45-39, third place in the Central by 1.5 games. Since then they’ve played .667 ball, going 36-18. That has made it quite difficult for the White Sox to keep pace. They’re a good team for sure, and as they showed earlier this year they can go on a monstrous tear. But it seems like every White Sox streak is overshadowed by Minnesota’s excellent play.

The rest of the way it appears as though Minnesota has a slight schedule advantage. Before the series with Chicago they play two against Kansas City and then three in Cleveland. After that they face Oakland, Cleveland, Detroit, Kansas City, and finally Toronto, meaning they play one team with an above-.500 record and two teams with records around the break-even mark. Chicago has three more against Detroit and three in KC before the Twins series, and then Detroit, Oakland, Anaheim, Boston, and finally Cleveland. That makes for also one team above .500, but a team faring slightly better than the Jays. Chicago’s disadvantage comes from their six remaining games with Detroit.

September can prove a wacky month in the world of baseball. Last year we saw the Twins lose Morneau and subsequently get hot and win the AL Central in a one-game playoff. In 2008, Minnesota was down 2.5 with six games to play. They swept the White Sox to take first place, but then dropped two of three to Kansas City, forcing a playoff which they lost. Minnesota might hold the advantage right now, but we’ve seen how quickly things can turn. Baseball fans might find more consistent enjoyment with the NL races, but keep your eyes on the Central. This could be the third straight year with a crazy finish.