How important was Monday's game between the White Sox and the Detroit Tigers? Well, consider this fun factoid from the Elias Sports Bureau:
Among teams holding a three-game lead in their division/league on Sept. 17, 87 percent have gone on to finish in first place. By way of comparison, teams holding a one-game lead on this date go on to win their division 59 percent of the time.
Needless to say, the Sox 5-4 victory over the Tigers at U.S. Cellular Field is huge. Nothing is assured yet with 16 games to play, but the South Siders' increased their odds of winning the AL Central dramatically by beating Detroit head-to-head and boosting their lead to three games.
The difference in the game? Of all things, it was a takeout slide by Alex Rios (pictured above) in the bottom of the fifth inning. The Sox were trailing 4-3 when they loaded the bases with nobody out. A.J. Pierzynski hit a screaming liner that was directly at Detroit right fielder Brennan Boesch. Boesch made the catch for the first out, and slow-footed Adam Dunn wisely did not attempt to score from third base on the fly out.
That gave Dayan Viciedo the RBI opportunity, and the 23-year-outfielder hit what looked like an inning-ending double play ball to shortstop Jhonny Peralta. But Rios had other ideas. He got down to second base quickly and sent Detroit second baseman Omar Infante head over heels. Rios was forced out, but Infante's relay throw to first base was wild.
Dunn scored easily to tie the game, and Paul Konerko came home from second base on the overthrow to put the Sox ahead 5-4. That run proved to be the difference in the game.
"That's a situation where every second baseman knows we're coming in hard. And it was a clean slide, and we took advantage of that," Rios said. "We scored two runs on that play and ended up winning the game, so it was a big play."
If Rios does not break up that potential 6-4-3 double play, Detroit escapes a bases-loaded, no-outs jam and continues to lead 4-3 into the sixth inning. The play changed the game considerably, and given the stakes, it might have changed the entire complexion of the AL Central race.
"That was a tough play for that second baseman to make that turn. I've been there before," White Sox second baseman Gordon Beckham said. "It's everything you can do to just get it off. What a great slide and I just told him (Rios) that might be the play of the year so far. Pretty special."
The other key for the Sox on Monday was the work of their bullpen. Five relievers combined to retire the final 14 Detroit batters consecutively. Nate Jones (8-0) worked 2 2/3 innings of scoreless relief to earn the victory. Donnie Veal, the Sox left-handed specialist, pitched to one batter and fanned Prince Fielder to finish the seventh inning.
Brett Myers worked a 1-2-3 eighth inning and retired Quintin Berry on an easy grounder to start the ninth. Matt Thornton came on to fan pinch hitter Andy Dirks for the second out. Addison Reed got Austin Jackson to fly out for the final out of the game. The rookie closer has been shaky lately, but earned his 27th save of the season.
Next up for the Sox is a three-game road series against their nemesis, the Kansas City Royals (66-80). The South Siders are just 5-10 against the Royals this season. Meanwhile, the Tigers head home to host the Oakland A's (84-62), who lead the wild-card race in the American League are just three games back of the Texas Rangers in the AL West.
Neither team has an easy series the next three days, but the Sox are in much better position having established the three-game lead they now enjoy.