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It's do-or-die time for South Siders

BASEBALL TONIGHT EXTRA

By Mark Simon, ESPN Research

With the Tigers and White Sox both sputtering down the stretch, their series to open the week marks a pivotal point. The Sox desperately need a sweep at home since they trail Detroit by five games in the NL Central and Minnesota by four in the wild-card race. The Tigers need some wins, not only to hold off the Twins, but to give themselves a reason to feel good heading into the postseason (assuming they get there).

Remember, the White Sox barely survived the finish in 2005, but they righted themselves at the very end. Both teams can take something from that. Chicago knows it can play well when it absolutely must. The Tigers know that things are fixable if they start playing with a bit more urgency.

It would be a major step for Detroit to come into Chicago and pick up some much-needed victories because the doubters are lining up, as they have been all season.

ARMED AND DANGEROUS

By RICK SUTCLIFFE, ESPN

Which playoff teams/contenders have the best pitching rotations?

Any rotation with Johan Santana has to be in the discussion. Moby Dick was a minnow the last time Santana lost in the second half. He is 39-3 after the All-Star break since 2003. Derek Jeter will get my vote for MVP, but Santana also should be part of the conversation.

There are several teams right now that are getting their starting rotations in order for the playoffs. If you have the luxury, this is something teams will do now -- and not just wait until the last week of the season. The Mets and Yankees can start lining things up for October, and the Cardinals and A's have comfortable enough leads that they can start to get their rotations in order as well.

Lining up rotations now for the postseason allows pitchers to get extra days off between now and October. We saw Joe Torre do it Thursday with Chien-Ming Wang, and you can expect Wang to get a couple more extra days to line him up to start Game 1 of the ALDS. The Yankees' starting rotation is lined up for the postseason as well as I've ever seen.

One team most fans aren't talking about is San Diego. Other than Jake Peavy, how many fans can name the rest of the Padres' rotation? David Wells was traded to San Diego, but after that, most people would be hard-pressed to name the rest. Pitching coach Darren Balsley has done a terrific job with that staff, and manager Bruce Bochy has had to mix and match lineups like no other manager in the game. San Diego is in position to win the NL West again.

In the American League, don't forget about the White Sox. Their starting rotation isn't as dominant as it was a year ago, but the potential is still there.

Look at the teams that won the World Series the last three years, and they all had one thing in common: a starting rotation that stayed healthy and had depth. In 2003, Florida had Dontrelle Willis, Carl Pavano, Brad Penny, Josh Beckett and Mark Redman. In 2004, Boston had five starters with at least 10 wins each. And last year, the White Sox's starting rotation led the American League in innings pitched.

But don't forget, teams with good starters are going to have very good bullpens because their relievers aren't going to be overused heading into the playoffs.

ELIAS SAYS

Carlos Zambrano capped a seven-run first inning with his fifth home run of the season in the Cubs' 11-3 win over the Reds. It was Zambrano's second first-inning homer of the year (the other was on July 2 against the White Sox), equaling the total for all other pitchers combined over the last 21 seasons. Since 1986, Tyler Greene (1995 Phillies) and Robert Person (2002 Phillies) are the only other pitchers to homer during the first inning of a game.

• Atlanta rallied for five runs in the bottom of the 10th inning to cap an unlikely 8-7 triumph against the Marlins. It was the first time in franchise history that the Braves had won a game in which they trailed by four or more runs during extra innings -- and keep in mind, the Braves have played in the National League since the year of its founding, 1876.

• The Tigers dropped a 12-8 decision to the Orioles in 10 innings on Sunday. It was the fourth time this season that Detroit lost an extra-inning game by a margin of at least four runs, matching the 2002 Royals for the most such losses in a single season for any team in major-league history.

David Murphy hit the first home run of his career to lead off the first inning for the Red Sox in New York on Sunday afternoon. No player had led off a game at Yankee Stadium with his first major-league home run since Reggie Smith, also for Boston, on April 14, 1967 (off Whitey Ford). The Red Sox's 3-0 victory that day was memorable for a different reason -- Billy Rohr came within one out of throwing a no-hitter in his big-league debut.

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