MLB.com Columnist

Richard Justice

AL Central race up for grabs as it should be

Justice: AL Central race up for grabs as it should be

AL Central race up for grabs as it should be
So now they're tied, these Tigers and White Sox, with eight games remaining. Isn't that beautiful?

There's probably no Wild Card safety net, either.

One of these teams will win the American League Central while the other almost surely will begin a long, unsatisfying offseason.

Never mind that they came from different places. If the Tigers finish this long, tortuous journey, it won't matter that they were supposed to have sewn up the division by now.

Nothing has come easy for them. One day, it's an injury. To Doug Fister or Austin Jackson. To Alex Avila or Jhonny Peralta.

Or it's players unable to live up to expectations. Since late April, the Tigers have spent a total of two days atop the AL Central. They were six games behind the White Sox on June 12.

Still, it would have been silly to count them out. Not with Miguel Cabera and Prince Fielder in the middle of the lineup and Justin Verlander, Max Scherzer and Fister at the top of the rotation. In some ways, they seem to be built more for the postseason than the regular season anyway.

As for the White Sox, it was impossible to know exactly how good they were. They were almost unanimously overlooked during Spring Training, and that just goes to show you what we know.

Tigers manager Jim Leyland has chided people for discounting the White Sox. He said he always knew they'd be pretty good.

That line appears to be a stretch. How could anyone know 23-year-old left-hander Chris Sale, who'd never started a Major League game before this season, would emerge as one of the best starters in either league?

He'll be on every AL Cy Young Award ballot after a season in which he's 17-7 with a 2.86 ERA and in the top 10 in virtually every AL category.

He's not even the most surprising story on the White Sox. That would be Jake Peavy, who has crossed the 200-innings threshold for the first time in five years. He did this after averaging 107 innings the past three seasons.

Or maybe the most amazing story on the White Sox is Adam Dunn rebounding from an awful offensive season to hit 41 home runs and draw 101 walks.

Or maybe the best story on the White Sox has been all those rookie relievers, including closer Addison Reed.

In the middle of it all has been Paul Konerko, who at 36 is as good as ever, hitting .301 with 25 home runs.

If he's not baseball's most respected player, he's way, way up there and appears to be having the time of his life being back in the thick of a playoff race.

Eyebrows were raised last winter when the White Sox hired Robin Ventura to be their manager. He had zero experience. Zero managing experience. Zero coaching experience.

Like a lot of things general manager Kenny Williams has done, it was the right move at the right time. Ventura brought instant respect because of the type player he was, both from a standpoint of production and from leadership.

He has brought a calm to the White Sox, and with iconic pitching coach Don Cooper bringing those baby pitchers along, it has been a storybook season.

Now the White Sox will attempt to finish the deal. After 70 days of shadowing one another, of never being separated by more than three games, the White Sox and Tigers both have control of their destiny.

The Tigers appear to have an easier schedule, but nothing is less predictable than September baseball. They have two games at home against the Royals and then six on the road against the Twins and Royals.

Meanwhile, the White Sox have one home game against the Indians and four against the Rays before finishing with three in Cleveland.

It was Joe Girardi who said, "The playoffs began early this season." Indeed, they have. For the White Sox and Tigers, they've been going on for a while. Now they're dead even with eight to play, and they're reminding us all why we love this stuff.

Richard Justice is a columnist for MLB.com. Read his blog, Justice4U. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.