The madness starts now

There's no official start to baseball's stretch run. It's kind of like what the Supreme Court once said about obscenity: You know it when you see it.

Well, I feel fairly certain that Friday night was the unofficial start of baseball's stretch run, as we saw eight teams with legitimate playoff aspirations face off against one another, with three of those games going down to the wire.

The most exciting game was in Atlanta, where the Braves beat the Dodgers 4-3 in 11 innings, and it had everything you look for in a good stretch-run battle.

1. The aging veteran (Chipper Jones) in his last hurrah hitting a home run. Check.

2. A late rally to tie the game. Check. (In this case, Jason Heyward hit a two-out single in the eighth to drive home the tying run.)

3. Extra innings. Check.

4. A reliever (Brandon League) escaping a tight jam in extra innings. Check.

5. An unlikely hero. Check. (Why was Juan Francisco such an unlikely hero? Well, he's a dead-pull, left-handed hitter who came into the night not having hit a ground-ball to the opposite field all season, and then he hit a grounder to left field to drive home the winning run in the bottom of the 11th.)

With the win, the Braves helped secure their spot atop the wild-card chase, as they are now five games clear of the Giants in the loss column. The game was a real potpourri of late-season zaniness, the kind of contest that gets you pumped for what's to come in September and October. But that wasn't all.

Over in Detroit you had Prince Fielder hit two mammoth two-run blasts that helped turn a 3-1 deficit into a 5-3 victory against the Orioles. The first homer was last seen orbiting Saturn, while the second one was an eighth-inning blast off of southpaw J.C. Romero, who has held fellow lefties to a .606 OPS in his career.

And in St. Louis, the Pirates managed to hold on for a 2-1 win after being gifted a pair of runs in the fourth inning, one on a wild pitch and one on a passed ball. The Bucs looked like they were on the verge of fading earlier in the week after three losses to the Dodgers, but they've now won two straight -- and tonight was the kind of squeaker playoff teams tend to pull out, so that has to be a confidence boost.

It also comes on the same day the club sent out information to its season-ticket holders about purchasing playoff tickets. Yes, that happened, and it wasn't part of a remake of "Punk'd." (And if there's anything that signals the end is nigh, it's playoff-ticket information being sent out.)

I've always been of the mind that it's not worth sweating the standings too much until the stretch run gets cooking, but now that is has, you can feel free to start obsessing about the "games behind" column.