Contenders hoping to avoid slides of last season
Indians, Bucs, Giants among teams that were sitting pretty a year ago
With just more than two months remaining in the regular season, the American League Central race has an eerily familiar feeling to it. So eerie, in fact, that entering Monday, the division race has developed in nearly identical fashion as it did last year -- swapping the Indians and White Sox.
Detroit moved into sole possession of first place on July 21 last year and never relinquished the lead. This past weekend, the Tigers swept the White Sox and -- on July 21 of all days -- jumped back into first place for the first time since May 1.
But while the Tigers hope for a sequel this season, both the Indians and White Sox will be pushing for a different ending.
Cleveland was the team in Chicago's position at this time last year, having spent much of the first half atop the division only to watch its lead slip away early in the second half. Likewise, the White Sox played the role currently held by the Tribe, lingering in third place, just a few games off the pace.
With two factors in play -- wanting to reverse the disappointment of fading down the stretch last year and having a second Wild Card spot available this time around -- both teams are hoping to avoid the pitfalls that undid them last season and keep playing deep into October.
Unfortunately, Chicago enters Monday on a five-game losing streak and the Indians are sporting a four-game skid, while the Tigers are rolling with five straight victories.
"You would rather have these little not-play-so-well [skids] now than in late August and September," said White Sox designated hitter Adam Dunn, who has been a key contributor to the club's 2012 turnaround. "Hopefully, we'll get it out of our system, start playing good and get some momentum when it starts to matter."
As for the Indians, they've fallen into a month-long rut during which they have plummeted from a 1 1/2-game lead to 4 1/2 games back of the Tigers. Cleveland has gone 10-16 in that stretch, dropping to third place.
"It seems like we're playing like we're tanked, like we're gassed right now, but we're not," said outfielder Shelley Duncan. "We just can't get anything going to get some excitement and some momentum on the team. We're missing that, we're missing that game where we score a lot of runs and have a lot of fun."
The White Sox and Indians aren't alone in their quest to bury last year's demons, though, as the Angels find themselves in a similar situation in the AL West. Last season, the Halos couldn't put together a strong enough push to qualify for the postseason.
Fast forward to 2012, and the Angels enter Monday five games back of the rival Rangers in the AL West but are in a virtual three-way tie, with Baltimore and Oakland, for the two Wild Card spots. While a return to the postseason would certainly be welcomed in Anaheim, the goal obviously remains to dethrone Texas.
The competition with the Rangers could even extend off the field during the next week, with both clubs in the market to add a starting pitcher before the July 31 non-waiver Trade Deadline.
"We have to tend to our own garden, and we have our own set of dynamics to manage, whether that be the 25-man roster or the organizational players that exist beyond the Major League club, payroll dynamics, etc.," Angels general manager Jerry Dipoto said. "The Angels are the Angels, the Rangers are the Rangers. We have to figure out how to catch them, but at the end of the day, we're managing our own club and this organization, not theirs."
In the National League, the Pirates and Giants are also hoping late-season collapses a season ago will serve as learning experiences and help them achieve different fates this year.
A year ago, Pittsburgh seemed destined to snap its nearly two-decade-long streak of losing seasons. The Pirates entered play on July 23 in second place in the NL Central, just one game off the pace, but they faded hard and fast down the stretch. They finished 72-90 to record their 19th consecutive losing season -- a record for any of the four major North American professional sports.
The situation is almost identical this year, with the Bucs sitting a half-game back of the division-leading Reds entering Monday.
"A year ago, we experienced four months of good baseball, then two months of wipe-out baseball," said Pirates manager Clint Hurdle. "They walked away with a better comprehension of what you need to do, how mentally tough you have to be, to win your division."
San Francisco is hoping to have learned a similar lesson, as the Giants let a four-game division lead on this date last year slip away in failing to qualify for the postseason.
Even with the second Wild Card providing an extra safety net for teams chasing the playoffs, simply avenging last year's missed postseason isn't at the forefront of any team's objectives.
The Angels don't just want to sneak in with a Wild Card berth, and the Pirates don't just want to snap their dreadful streak of consecutive losing seasons. For teams still in contention, the goal is the same as it was at the start of Spring Training -- win it all.
"You learn from what we did last year," said Pirates center fielder Andrew McCutchen, who leads the Majors with a .372 average. "We focus on what we did right and we learn from what we did wrong. I believe that really helped us out going into this year. We know what to expect and we know what to do to succeed."