CHICAGO -- A funny thing happened Tuesday night to the Collapse of the Century.
The Amazing Collapsing White Sox forgot to keep collapsing.
What's up with that?
If they were really intent on making collapse fans everywhere happy, the last thing those White Sox would have done Tuesday was find a way to beat their pals from Cleveland, 7-6 -- on a stunning Joe Crede walkoff homer that sprayed grand-finale fireworks all over a spectacular, 10-inning, laryngitis-inducing baseball game.
But that's what those gasping, wheezing, suffocating White Sox did, even though this game gave them more opportunities to take a dive than Chantelle Newbery.
Heck, they trailed in this game three different times (2-0, 3-2 and 5-3).
And their No. 1 starter, Mark Buehrle, served up three gopherball platters in one game for the first time in 25 starts.
And just when it looked as if they absolutely, positively had this tussle won, of course they didn't -- because their soon-to-be-all-star center fielder, Aaron Rowand, let a ninth-inning line drive land someplace other than his glove.
But after all that, the White Sox won this classic anyway. So before we start calling Ralph Branca and Mike Torrez for those Mandatory Collapse Comparison stories, maybe it's time we should all ask ourselves this:
Do teams in mid-foldo mode really find ways to win games like this?
"I guess we're not supposed to," said catcher A.J. Pierzynski with a laugh after his team had stretched its AL Central lead back to a mammoth 3½ games. "Everyone keeps asking that, so I guess we're supposed to lose these games. But no one told us that. No one told us we're supposed to just roll over when they go up, 1-0. But maybe we should.
"Then, whoever scores first, people could just go home. They want to speed up the games, right? So Bud [Selig] would be happy. First team to score wins. That would speed it up. It would be just like overtime in football."
Nah. Sorry, pal. Not interested in that innovation. For lots of reasons. But one of them is that there is nothing about this series, or this pennant race, that feels anything like football.
No other sport gives us anything remotely resembling the drama that White Sox-Indians has become -- and then drags those two teams out to the same intersection and makes them play each other three nights in a row. And after watching two sensational duels between these warriors in a row, we're now eternally grateful for that.
"This," Pierzynski said, "is the fun part. September baseball. This is what it's about."
Then again, we should mention that the "fun" looked for a while there as if it might get trampled by the subplots -- especially because the subplots were threatening to become the main plot if the White Sox didn't mix in a win in one of these games.
And that subplot could be summed up by some of the sympathetic headlines the White Sox awoke Tuesday morning to find splattered all over their local newspapers -- headlines, for instance, like this:
NOW PLAYING IN CHICAGO: CHOKE-JOB THEATER (Sun-Times)
Now some managers involved in races like this, races in which their team had turned a 15-game lead into a 2½ game lead in just seven short weeks, would be walking around wearing blindfolds to make sure they avoided reading prose like that. But then again, Ozzie Guillen, of these White Sox, isn't like some managers.
Or possibly any managers.
"When I read headlines that say, 'YOU CHOKE,' I read those [stories]," Guillen told the circling media vultures before the game.
And why, he was asked, would he possibly want to read those stories?
"I want to see if maybe they're right," he giggled.
Well, apparently, those stories haven't convinced him -- because Guillen announced pointedly, both before and after this game, that "nobody's choking."
And he punctuated that announcement afterward with a more direct, more personal adjunct: "I'm no choker."
"Somebody asked me today, 'Well, if you're not a choker, what should we call you?'" Guillen chortled. "I said, 'I don't know -- a loser?'
"But let me tell you something," the manager said. "It's hard to be a choker when you've won 92 games (a remark we'll allow him even though his team has won "only" 91)."
This would be manager Guillen's way of reminding his admirers that despite all this choking that allegedly has been going on here, his team still has won more games than any club on earth except the Cardinals. And that's true.
But this is where us chroniclers of Great Collapses In History can introduce some other facts:
• According to the Elias Sports Bureau, the White Sox have now become just the third team in history to take a 15-game lead and shrink it down to a lead of under 5 games at any point in any season. The others were the 1976 Phillies (went from 15½ to 3 before hanging on) and the 1912 Giants (from a size 16½ to a size 4).
• But even more ominously, the White Sox also were in danger of becoming the first team ever to spit out a lead of more than 13 games over the team in second place. The current record-holders are the 1951 Dodgers, who made a 13-gamer on Aug. 11 disappear (against the Giants). And their very special co-stars in the record books are the 1928 Yankees, who also blew a 13-gamer (over the Athletics) -- but then won the pennant anyway. (What about the 1914 Braves, you ask? Yes, they were once 15 games back. But they were actually in last place at the time. And the first-place Giants led the second-place Cubs by only four.)
So meanwhile, back in the present, whatever you want to call this White Sox plunge back toward their AL Central neighbors from Ohio, a couple of things are indisputable:
(1) It's on the verge of being downright massively historic.
And (2) it doesn't happen a whole lot, either.
So after a wrenching loss to Cleveland on Monday, this was Not Just Another Game these White Sox were playing Tuesday.
"We needed this one," Guillen said, after exhaling for the first time in about four hours.
And every time the Indians scored, back they came. To pull even at 2-2 in the third. And then again at 3-3 in the fourth. And then, with disaster lurking after a two-run Cleveland burst in the top of the seventh, they managed to answer with three in the bottom of the seventh, off starter Jake Westbrook and reliever Bobby Howry (a guy who hadn't been scored on since Aug. 2 -- 22 appearances ago).
But with one out in the ninth and a runner on first, along came One of Those Moments that Happens to Teams Working on Historic Cliff Dives.
Victor Martinez roped a long line drive to center field, where Roward normally slurps up balls like that without even breathing hard. But not this time. Rowand broke in. The ball exploded back. And he never did catch up. Double. Second and third. Uh-oh.
Guillen then played the infield back and conceded the tying run on a ground ball by Ronnie Belliard. And as all that unfolded, Rowand stood there in center field, trying to figure out if he should shoot himself -- or just join the witness-protection program.
"I had one guy yell at me that I was gonna be working at the factory with him the next day," Rowand chuckled later. "Tough crowd."
But Rowand handled the whole debacle with stand-up-guy class, saying numerous times afterward: "If we'd have lost this game, I would have put the blame squarely on myself."
Nevertheless, no one was more grateful than him that it never came to that -- because Crede dug in and pounded David Riske's second pitch of the 10th inning halfway to Joliet.
Crede knew what this meant the moment he swung, too. And so did the rest of civilization. So Crede started trotting, pausing for a quick burst of applause at first base. And the Indians started marching off the field, not even bothering to glance over their shoulders. And fireworks lit up the sky. And many, many White Sox gathered at home plate to administer the most enjoyable mugging Joe Crede has ever absorbed.
"I've hit other walkoff homers," Crede said. "But the situations were so different. Either it was real early in the season, or we were out of it. But to hit one when we're in first place, in the next-to-last week of the season, against a team we're battling back and forth, I'd have to say that was the biggest hit of my career."
Right. And maybe all of their careers.
As long as they win this division, no one will ever remember how many games these White Sox used to lead by.
As long as they win this division, they can look upon this whole mess as just a fascinating little final chapter to a great season.
As long as they win this division, they can even rationalize it the way their GM, Kenny Williams, is at the moment -- with a hearty "This might be the best thing that ever happened to us."
Maybe this team needed to be tested, their GM theorizes, to get back to playing the way it played in April, May and June. Maybe it needed to be pushed to get back to doing those little things that got them into this mess in the first place.
So fine. They're being tested. And as long as they don't flunk the test, they'll never have to hear about Mike Torrez and Ralph Branca ever again. So that's the deal.
"I'm sure everyone in here would like to have a 25-game lead like the Cardinals and get it over with," Pierzynski said, "because the truth is, no one ever really wants to be tested. But this is just how it is. Cleveland is not going to go away. They're a very good team. So we just have to keep fighting -- and two weeks from now, we'll see what happens."
Yep. Sure will. And after the way the first two nights of their heavyweight championship bout has gone down, we can hardly wait for the rest of it.
Jayson Stark is a senior writer for ESPN.com.