How exciting was the baseball on display Thursday night? When the late-inning twists make for more compelling television than the Capitol Hill bailout drama and the Southern Cal-Oregon State football game, you know you're watching something special.
Three teams -- the Brewers, Mets and Twins -- began play knowing that a loss might do irreparable damage to their playoff hopes. All three won on walk-off hits before tense and (in New York's case) weather-battered home crowds.
Before Carlos Beltran mercifully sent everybody home with a run-scoring single in New York's 7-6 win over Chicago, the Mets received clutch RBI hits in the eighth inning from Ramon Martinez and Robinson Cancel, who appeared on manager Jerry Manuel's lineup card after making a combined total of eight big league starts all season. Mets right fielder Ryan Church scored the tying run with a combination slide and body contortion that play-by-play man Gary Cohen equated to a game of "Twister in the mud."
In Milwaukee, the Brewers beat Pittsburgh 5-1 on a 10th-inning grand slam by Ryan Braun. Braun and Steve Finley of the 2004 Dodgers are the only two players to hit a walk-off slam for a team in playoff contention with less than five games remaining in the season. (And you thought the folks at the Elias Sports Bureau weren't paying attention).
In Minnesota, 43,601 fans showed up for a baseball game, and a track meet broke out. Outfielders Denard Span and Carlos Gomez, Minnesota's speedster bookends in the batting order, combined for seven hits and wall-to-wall havoc before Alexi Casilla ended the game with a run-scoring single in the 10th inning. Chicago closer Bobby Jenks, putting a twist on the new celebratory ritual in Milwaukee, yanked his jersey out of his pants as he headed down the dugout steps in disgust.
"We wasted 26 innings in this town," White Sox manager Ozzie Guillen said in his postgame press conference. Guillen then speculated that he might have to wash down the defeat with a couple of sleeping pills and a glass of vodka.
In Chicago, Minneapolis, Philadelphia, New York and Milwaukee, where five teams will be competing for three playoff spots this weekend, the stakes are about to get even higher.
At Citizens Bank Park in Philadelphia, the Phillies will send Joe Blanton to the mound against Washington's Collin Balester. But the forecast calls for an 80 percent chance of rain Friday and a 60 percent chance Saturday. The weather map is even grimmer in New York, where the Mets' Mike Pelfrey is slated to take on Florida's Chris Volstad. The chance of rain is listed at 90 percent both Friday and Saturday.
Considering there's a good possibility that some teams will have to play a 163rd game to break a tie Monday or Tuesday, it's difficult to imagine the chaos that several rainouts will bring to pitching rotations. And doubleheaders this weekend will put an even greater strain on bullpens that are already taxed from overwork.
The jumble is only fitting in the National League, where the Brewers are looking for their first postseason appearance since 1982, the Mets are trying to erase the memory of last season's collapse and the Phillies simply can't stand prosperity. Philadelphia was on the verge of putting away New York in the National League East before suffering back-to-back home losses against Atlanta this week. Some Philadelphia players seem resigned that a playoff berth won't come without the requisite uncertainty and anguish.
"It wouldn't be the Philly way," shortstop Jimmy Rollins said Wednesday. "It doesn't matter what sport. We don't make things easy."
Pale Hose falling apart
At this point, no team is sweating harder than the White Sox, who have been sitting on a magic number of five since Tuesday. First, manager Ozzie Guillen issued a challenge to pitcher Javier Vazquez, who flopped in the opener of the Minnesota series. Then, Orlando Cabrera questioned his teammates' intensity, prompting Guillen -- of all people -- to admonish Chicago's shortstop for his lack of verbal restraint.
The White Sox are 51-26 at home, which bodes well for this weekend's series against Cleveland. Chicago's hopes could come down to Mark Buehrle, who will pitch on three days' rest Sunday. And if that doesn't resolve things, the White Sox have a possible makeup game against Detroit on tap Monday.
"I hope people in Chicago still believe we can do this," Guillen said.
Given the apparent crisis of confidence in the White Sox clubhouse right now, the mindset of Chicago fans should probably be the last thing on Guillen's mind.
Minnesota isn't as fortunate as it once seemed to draw Kansas City for a three-game home series to end the season. The Royals, those perennial soft touches, are 16-7 in September and lead the American League in batting average and rank second in team ERA this month. If the Royals need any extra incentive, a productive weekend against the Twins will help them avoid a last-place finish for the first time since 2003.
But Kansas City won't be playing with a full deck against the Twins. Outfielder David DeJesus, who has quietly had a fine season as the Royals' leadoff man, is questionable with a strained right hip flexor. The Twins will also miss 13-game winner Zack Greinke.
Greinke is tied with Cleveland's Cliff Lee for the AL lead with 23 quality starts, and he looked superb while throwing seven shutout innings in a 5-0 win at Detroit on Tuesday. But he's been limited in his side sessions recently and is showing signs of fatigue, so the Royals have decided to shut him down as a protective measure.
Greinke has thrown 202 innings, 80 more than last season, so Royals general manager Dayton Moore, manager Trey Hillman and pitching coach Bob McClure don't want to push him any further beyond his limit. The Royals backed off starter Brian Bannister at the end of last season, and were monitoring Luke Hochevar's workload closely before he went down with a rib injury in August.
"He's gassed," Moore said of Greinke. "Like I told Trey and Mac, 'You guys have to do what you think is best for the team.' We've been talking for two weeks about shutting him down once he got to 200 innings."
Kansas City will start Kyle Davies, Brandon Duckworth and Gil Meche against Minnesota. The White Sox obviously would prefer to see Greinke in the mix this weekend. But after dropping three straight games in Minnesota, Chicago doesn't have much right to complain.
This and that
• The Mets' bullpen has justifiably been slammed for ineffectiveness, but some of these guys are pitching on fumes. Left-hander Pedro Feliciano just broke Mike Stanton's club record with his 84th appearance, and Joe Smith appeared in his 80th game Thursday. Feliciano leads the majors in relief appearances, and Smith is tied for third.
• As if Ryan Braun's 36 homers and 104 RBIs weren't impressive enough, he deserves extra-credit points for candor. After the Brewers were swept in Philadelphia recently, Braun called the series a "complete and total disaster." Following his walk-off grand slam Thursday, a dugout interviewer asked what the home run might do for his confidence. The self-assured Braun flashed a wry smile and said, "I don't need more confidence. I never need more confidence."
• The Cubs nearly wrecked the Mets' season Thursday with a makeshift lineup. Lou Piniella started Felix Pie in left field, Micah Hoffpauir at first base, Casey McGehee at third base, Koyie Hill at catcher and Mike Fontenot at second, and never summoned relievers Carlos Marmol or Kerry Wood in a tight game. Mark DeRosa (calf strain) and Ronny Cedeno (shoulder strain) are both dealing with late-season injuries.
Hoffpauir, who spent six years in the minors before making his big league debut at age 28 this season, had an evening to remember with five hits and two homers. Will the performance earn him another start Friday against Milwaukee's Jeff Suppan? Maybe not. Derrek Lee, Chicago's regular first baseman, has 20 hits in 42 at-bats against Suppan, for a career average of .476.
• Ryan Dempster, scheduled to pitch the opener of the National League Division Series for the Cubs next week, makes his final regular-season tune-up Friday in Milwaukee. Dempster is 8-2 with a career 2.48 ERA against the Brewers, and he wears out the heart of the Milwaukee lineup. Bill Hall, Mike Cameron, J.J. Hardy, Braun and Corey Hart are a combined 9-for-75 (.120) against Dempster.