Detroit is two games back in the American League Central with 13 games left after Thursday's loss to Oakland. Meanwhile, the division-leading White Sox have shown few signs of slowing down, winning five of their last seven games.
Getting better performances from Rick Porcello -- who takes the mound in Friday's series opener against the Twins -- could go a long way in helping Detroit chase down Chicago.
Porcello has been decent, but not great, of late. He is 0-2 with a 4.60 ERA over his last three starts. While he has only allowed eight earned runs, he's also been very hittable, giving up 21 hits over 15 2/3 innings.
Porcello was solid -- not dominant -- again in his last start against another struggling team in Cleveland on Sept. 16. He allowed four runs on eight hits, needing 90 pitches to make it through 4 2/3 innings.
"These are high-intensity games as far as how much they mean," Porcello said. "We're right there in this race."
Meanwhile, just when Minnesota starter Samuel Deduno seemingly figured out his issues with walks, they flared up again. Deduno handed out five walks in only four innings against the White Sox on Sept. 15 after giving up only six free passes over his previous three starts (20 innings).
Deduno struggled as a result, allowing four earned runs in only four innings.
"My mechanics were OK, but I was just trying to do too much," Deduno said. "Nothing was working. But sometimes that's just part of the game."
Twins: Targeting pitching in the offseason
Manager Ron Gardenhire is well aware that Minnesota needs to improve its pitching in the coming offseason. The Twins took a 4.82 ERA into Thursday's game, tied with Cleveland for the AL's worst mark. Minnesota's current five-man rotation of Deduno, Liam Hendriks, Scott Diamond, Esmerling Vasquez, and P.J. Walters has combined for 28 career victories.
By contrast, Porcello has notched 47 career Major League victories.
"We have to have starting pitching, and I'm not talking just a few decent arms," Gardenhire said. "I'm talking quality starting pitching. We have to have some people give us a chance. ... You need those one or two guys that every time they step up, you have a chance to end a streak or start a new streak or keep a streak going."
Joe Mauer enters the series as one of baseball's hottest hitters. Mauer is hitting .426 over his last 15 games (23-for-54), raising his overall batting average from .312 to .321 over that span. He trails Mike Trout (.327) and Miguel Cabrera (.333) in pursuit of his fourth career AL batting title.
Tigers: Cabrera seeks Triple Crown
Cabrera is the first player since Carl Yastrzemski's Triple Crown year in 1967 to enter the season's final two weeks leading the league in batting average and RBIs while trailing for the home run lead by two or fewer, according to ESPN.com.
The slugger chose not to talk about his chances of claiming the first Triple Crown in 45 years, but recognized the gravity of the opportunity.
"That's amazing," Cabrera said. "It's something [that if] you do, it's like, wow."
Catcher Alex Avila was available Thursday after missing three straight due to a mild concussion he suffered in a collision with teammate Prince Fielder. Manager Jim Leyland chose to not start or play Avila on Thursday, but he should be OK to play moving forward.
"I'm good to go," Avila said. "[I feel] much better. Everything was better across the board. I just feel better mentally. I feel more normal."
The three-game series will feature two of baseball's top run-producers this season. Cabrera's 130 RBIs are the most in the Majors while Josh Willingham ranks third with 110.
Four Twins players with at least 15 at-bats against Porcello own a .333 batting average or better against the right-hander, including Alexi Casilla (.333), Jamey Carroll (.353), Ben Revere (.368), and Denard Span (.379).