September 26, 2008
Sweeps and Walk-Offs
If the White Sox aren't still playing baseball a week from now, they'll have no shortage of people to blame.
The difference in the importance of last night's game for the two teams is this: the White Sox still control their own destiny. If they win out, including a Monday makeup against the Tigers, they'll do no worse than a one-game playoff Tuesday against the Twins. Had the Twins lost, they would have needed a sweep of the Royals and at least two Sox losses along the way. Last night's result makes it very likely that the Sox will have to play Monday to determine the Central winner, and the result of that game could well give us an additional tie-breaking game on Tuesday.
Looking ahead to the games, you'd have to give the Twins a solid shot at at least two wins. They'll have a significant edge in pitching matchups on Friday and Sunday, and they're playing at home against the Royals. The Royals have actually had a good season by their own lights, and their recent success at the plate against southpaws gives them a fighting chance against Francisco Liriano and Glen Perkins. They'll also be up against a Twins' pen that, after the last two nights, is on the darker side of crispy. It doesn't seem likely that Joe Nathan will be available at all tonight.
Keep something else in mind: two years ago, the Royals went into Detroit on the season's last weekend and swept the Tigers, a sweep that allowed the Twins to sneak away with the AL Central crown. This isn't nearly over yet. The Sox will host the Indians, and also have an edge in the pitching matchups the first two nights before drawing Cliff Lee on Sunday.
As the AL got crazier, the NL got calmer. Wins by the Mets and Brewers all but eliminated the Astros, whose season will end with their next loss or the next win by either of the other two teams. Those wins did not come easily; the Mets climbed out of 3-1 and 6-3 holes to beat the Cubs' B team in 7-6 final in a game won in the ninth. The Brewers had to go 10 innings to beat the Pirates' A team-not quite as good as the Cubs' B team-and for the second time in the series, won with a walk-off homer against a Quadruple-A pitcher with less than 70 innings of MLB experience. As much as we're all focused on the decisions made by Lou Piniella, it's worth nothing that managers around the game make curious personnel decisions when the game matters more to their opponents than it does to them.
More importantly, the Mets and Cubs completed their game, if just barely. I shudder to think of what might have happened had Carlos Beltran's line drive stuck in Micah Hoffpauir's glove in the ninth inning. Would the teams have continued playing in rapidly deteriorating conditions unfit for baseball and borderline dangerous? Would the umps have sensibly called the game, waited out an interminable rain delay and then suspended the game, potentially forcing the Cubs back to New York on Monday? The teams played the last four innings in weather that probably would have inspired a delay under other circumstances, largely because of the logistics involved. If Hoffpauir makes that play, the two teams are either playing baseball in completely unfit weather, or into the great unknown.
Weather may still create problems over the weekend, as it's supposed to rain almost continuously in New York through early Sunday, and sporadically after that. Philadelphia will also be wet. I strongly suspect that the Mets will, at best, get one game in over the next two days, and the Phillies may also face at least one rainout.
The Mets have a particular challenge in that many of their fans have purchased tickets to Sunday's 1 p.m. start on the idea that it would be the final regular-season game at Shea Stadium, and the entire last series has been sold out. It will be difficult to shuffle the schedule in a way that doesn't anger some large subset of fans. Were you to squeeze in one game Saturday, and schedule a day-night doubleheader Sunday, how would you handle ticketing for the two games, and more importantly, how do you assure than 50,000-odd people get the message?
That adds a layer of complication to an already complicated situation. What we can say for sure is that the Cubs have probably played their way out of any more travel, and that the three NL teams remaining are headed for a long and interesting weekend of watching not just scoreboards, but satellite pictures.