A missed matchup for AL Central title

Sox-Twins in unexpected showdown

If anyone had suggested at the outset of this baseball year that the American League Central race would go down to the final week of the season, conventional wisdom would have replied:

"Of course. That would be the Tigers and the Indians."

That's the problem with conventional wisdom. It's conventional. The AL Central race is coming down to the final week, but the contenders are the Chicago White Sox and the Minnesota Twins.

The Tigers may have added Miguel Cabrera to an already-imposing lineup and the Indians may have been one victory away from the World Series last October, but neither of these alleged contenders has been a factor in this race for some time.

Instead, the White Sox and Twins will put on a big indoor showdown for all the AL Central marbles this week, three games at the Metrodome, starting on Tuesday night. This head-to-head meeting will be the premier event of the regular season's final week.

Neither of these clubs, according to preseason conventional wisdom, was supposed to be this good, particularly this late. The White Sox were dismissed because of their numbing 72-90 record in 2007. The Twins were dismissed because they had lost their Gold Glove center fielder and spiritual core, Torii Hunter, not to mention their two-time AL Cy Young Award winner, Johan Santana.

Only one of these two teams is going to emerge from this series and this last week with a smile. But it could very easily be argued that they will both have succeeded this season.

The White Sox enter this series with a 2 1/2-game lead over the Twins. On the other hand, in the last 12 games between these two clubs in the Metrodome, the Twins are 9-3. So there is something here for everybody. And there should be.

The White Sox have received crucial contributions from players acquired in trades made by general manager Ken Williams. Two young starters, Gavin Floyd and John Danks, have had breakthrough seasons. And outfielder Carlos Quentin, acquired in a truly one-sided deal with Arizona, performed like an MVP candidate before being sidelined by injury.

Run-producing veterans such as Jim Thome and Jermaine Dye have done their share, and rookie second baseman Alexei Ramirez has been a revelation. The White Sox have been able to withstand the loss of Quentin, and, less than three autumns removed from their World Series championship, are fully deserving of another postseason shot.

The Twins remain, on the basis of getting the most mileage out of limited financial resources, as good an organization as there is in the game. The Twins have won four division titles in the last six years, but this year, managing to rebound from the loss of Hunter and Santana, may be one of their most impressive pieces of work.

A wave of young starting pitchers has come through for the club. Rookie outfielder Denard Span has been a invaluable contributor, and is yet another example of the kind of player the Minnesota farm system produces, playing exactly the kind of game the Twins want to play.

Joe Mauer continues to be perhaps the best all-around catcher in baseball and is on the verge of a second batting title. First baseman Justin Morneau is putting up the kind of numbers in the second half that suggest a second American League MVP Award would be fully justified. And Joe Nathan continues to be one of the best closers in the business. The only thing he has lacked is suitable national recognition, but that kind of thing doesn't hold down the save totals.

And now the season's biggest series beckons for both clubs. The return of Francisco Liriano has been a boost for the Twins. He won a big decision for them on Sunday and thus will not be available for this series. But the pitching matchups are suitably strong; Javier Vazquez vs. Scott Baker, Mark Buehrle vs. Nick Blackburn and Floyd vs. Kevin Slowey. The managerial matchups, Ozzie Guillen vs. Ron Gardenhire, give you a daily double -- two of the best skippers, and two of the quickest wits in the game.

This is what the season should be about: the two leading teams in a division meeting in the last week of the season with the title on the line. There will be no Wild Card bid for the second-place finisher. This series, as far as the postseason berth goes, is all-or-nothing.

Yes, months ago, the presence of these two teams in a series of this magnitude at this time would have seemed unlikely on a good day. But that was before the Twins and the White Sox played a season's worth of baseball that was good enough, solid enough, consistent enough to get to this point. At one time, these teams might have been considered surprising. Now, they can only be considered substantial. October baseball will only be played by one of them, but both have seasons that contained a large measure of success.

Mike Bauman is a national columnist for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.