Tigers get a taste of Cintron

CHICAGO -- There are, in fact, several living human beings who can remember the last time a Tigers-White Sox series felt like this.

Big. Well, bigger than a Daily Lotto drawing, anyway.

Meaningful. Well, more meaningful than a Nicole Jordan novel, at least.

Of actual pennant-race significance. Well, for June, anyhow.

But to remember anything that felt like Tuesday night felt at U.S. Cellular Field, where the first-place Detroit Tigers lost a stunner of a 4-3 baseball game to those ring-laden White Sox, you may need one powerful dose of Mega Memory pills.

Last time these two teams met this late in any season when one was in first place and the other was in second: June 9, 1993 -- which was about 2,000 ball games ago.

But of course, back then, those two weren't in the same division. So the last time they met while 1-2 in the SAME section of the standings was slightly longer ago.

As in July 2, 1967, in the heyday of the good old Lyndon B. Johnson administration. And that, if you lost track, was more than 6,000 games ago.

But apparently what goes around really does come around -- if you hang in there long enough.

Why? Because "baseball's a cycle," said Tigers coach Andy Van Slyke. "Just like global warming. Everybody's gotta get hot sometime."

Fortunately for the 37,192 folks at the Cell on Tuesday, the White Sox and Tigers managed to heat up before the polar ice caps. And come to think of it, we all ought to drink to that.

While we're at it, though, let's raise a toast to Mrs. Ana Uribe, wife of regular White Sox shortstop Juan Uribe -- because without her, the AL Central's most spectacular plot twist of the year would not have been possible.

Mrs. Uribe had the tremendous sense of timing to go into labor Tuesday afternoon, with bambino No. 4 on the ever-swelling Uribe family roster.

So her husband, who was originally in the lineup, had to make an emergency departure from the ballpark before the game. And that was all part of the baseball gods' grandiose plan to turn his replacement, Alex Cintron, into a central pennant-race figure.

It was Alex Cintron -- who else? -- who stepped to the plate with one out in the eighth inning to face the Tigers' most dominating reliever this year, Fernando Rodney.

It was Alex Cintron -- who else? -- who then mashed the game-winning three-run homer, the one that saved the White Sox from falling 3½ games behind the Tigers.

It was Alex Cintron -- who else? -- who rescued the White Sox mere minutes after their two most feared hitters, Jim Thome and Paul Konerko, had left the bases loaded in the seventh inning.

"The way that game was going," said White Sox catcher-quotesmith A.J. Pierzynski, "that was about the last thing you thought would happen right there: Two walks and a home run by a guy who hadn't hit one all year.

"But you wouldn't want Thome to hit that home run. That would be no fun. To have Alex Cintron hit it, that was much more fun."

"That's exactly what I was thinking: I'm finally part of the White Sox team. When you come through with a big hit like that, that's what you think."
--Alex Cintron

It was particularly fun for Alex Cintron, at least, because until that swing of the bat, there's no telling how many millions of Americans weren't even aware he played for the White Sox.

Then again, he DIDN'T play for them the last time a lot of those Americans saw the White Sox. Which would have been very late October, moments before massive quantities of champagne came into their lives.

And even 3½ months ago, when spring training began, Cintron wasn't a member of the White Sox. He reported to camp as an Arizona Diamondback, then got dealt to the White Sox on March 8, for the world-renowned Jeff Bajenaru.

So Alex Cintron had started only 21 games for the White Sox before last night. He had driven in only seven runs. He'd never gotten to practice his home run trot.

But one heroic swoosh of the bat later, he was the most popular guy on the South Side of Chicago.

And as he rounded the bases, as shrieks and tears and fireworks erupted all around him, Alex Cintron told himself one thing:

He was now, officially, a member of the White Sox.

"That's exactly what I was thinking: I'm finally part of the White Sox team," said Cintron, who did hit three pinch homers (and two game-enders) in Arizona last year. "When you come through with a big hit like that, that's what you think. I did this last year with the Diamondbacks, but this was different. To come out and hit a home run in a big moment like that, against a team like the Tigers, was a great feeling."

It wasn't such a great feeling, on the other hand, for the Tigers, who now have gone 2-7 since ending a 15-1 blitz last month. But one thing the manager, Jim Leyland, has preached all year is that this isn't about results. It's about how you play the games and how you approach the games.

So for this team, recovering from the games -- even games like this -- isn't as difficult as it may look from afar.

"This team responds well," said Tuesday's starter, Nate Robertson. "And we've got a guy who throws 100 [mph] going tomorrow."

That would be eye-popping rookie right-hander Justin Verlander, a guy who hasn't lost in over a month. He'll be the second Guy Who Throws 100 the White Sox will have faced in this series. And they had better hope he's more fun to deal with than the one they saw, in all his radar-gun-busting splendor Tuesday.

That would be fellow rookie Joel Zumaya. And for a few fleeting moments Tuesday night, it looked as if he was going to be the hero du jour.

All he had to do was wriggle his way out of a bases-loaded, one-out mess in the seventh, with Thome and Konerko as the entrees on his menu.

But down went Thome, playing his first game (because of a groin strain) since Thursday, on a 98-mph scorchball. That was two outs.

Then down went Konerko, after chasing a sailing 98-mph smoker and floating it to center field. And as that fly ball settled into Curtis Granderson's glove and Zumaya high-fived his way back to the dugout, it felt like a giant vacuum had just sucked all the energy out of a sold-out park.

"Bases loaded and your big guys coming to the plate," Cintron said. "When you don't score there, I think the fans, our club, everybody was saying, 'Oh my God. If we miss that chance, it's going to be tough to win this game.' "

Then again, obviously, this was just how Mrs. Uribe planned it.

Unless Alex Cintron had something to do with inducing some quick labor.

"Who knows?" Pierzynski theorized. "He might have. On the off day [Monday], he might have slipped her something to make her go into labor."

Cintron, for the record, was pleading not guilty to all charges. But he has left his mark on a Tigers-White Sox pennant race that not many people saw coming -- and even fewer could view with a sense of déjà vu.

"I would think the Cubs and White Sox would be a nice rivalry," said Leyland. "I don't think the White Sox and Tigers are a rivalry."

Well, not yet they aren't. But the Tigers continue to lead the league in both rotation and bullpen ERA. And even Leyland continues to tell people: "We're for real."

The White Sox, on the other hand, are remembering how to do just what they did last year -- which was find one creative way after another to win games they had no business winning.

"Having the little guys helping the big guys," said manager Ozzie Guillen, "That's what it takes to win."

Well, that and having the right wife head for the delivery room at exactly the right moment.

Jayson Stark is a senior writer for ESPN.com.