Saturday, September 29, 2007

Ecstasy and agony

ON BASEBALL

Entering Friday night's slate of games, the National League playoff picture was about as clear as the view from Mt. Everest's peak.

Seven teams were still alive. Not one playoff spot had been clinched. There was the possibility of five teams finishing with identical records. There were approximately 4,319 scenarios for how the weekend could turn out. Baseball fans were prepared for multiple one-game playoffs beginning Monday, with a chance of continuing through Wednesday.

Then the sky cleared. By about midnight, two playoff spots had been clinched — with the Diamondbacks earning a birth with their 4-2 win over the red-hot Rockies, and the Cubs clinching the Central Division due to their 6-0 win over Cincinnati's minor league lineup combined with Milwaukee's 6-3 loss to the Padres.

Also by midnight, two teams had been sent to the very edge of a steep cliff — with the Mets losing again, this time 7-4 to the lowly Marlins, which, combined with the Phillies' 6-0 dispatching of the Nationals, put the men in white and red a game up in the division with a game to play. And the Rockies, who had won 11 straight entering Friday, fell two games behind the Padres in the wild card due to their loss. Any Padres' win or Rockies' loss seals their fate.

Whew! What a crazy night it was.

So what does this all mean, besides the fact that we'll likely not have to face the decision of watching Monday Night Football versus a one-game playoff Monday night?

It means that the Mets are on the verge of completing the greatest late-season collapse since the 1964 Phillies — a bit ironic, considering who just took over the division lead.

It means that Philly sports fans might finally have something to cheer for — just watching them waving those white towels deliriously Friday night, you could tell they've been waiting for this.

And, believe me, if the Phillies hold on, no one will want to play them in the postseason. That lineup is scarier than a Wes Craven flick — keeping them in almost every game — and if the pitching staff gets its act together like Cole Hamels did Friday, in striking out 13 in eight shutout innings, I don't see why the Fighting Phils can't win the pennant.

But, wait, I'm getting ahead of myself. It's easy to discount the Mets, but it's not wise. All you have to do is look back a year to realize that the one thing that matters is getting in.

If — and, yes, I know the size of this "if" rather large — New York can win its final two games, force a playoff with the Phillies, who would have to lose one, and make the playoffs, it couldn't be counted out in the playoffs. Last season the Cardinals and Tigers limped to the regular season's finish line (with St. Louis finishing 3-9 and Detroit giving up the AL Central by losing five straight).

Nobody gave either team a fighting chance in the playoffs. Yankees' fans, I'm sure, were already thinking about the ALCS before their divisional series against the Tigers.

You know what ended up happening. Perhaps aided by the two-day hiatus from baseball, the Cardinals and Tigers got hot when it mattered and ended up in the World Series.

So, yes, it's possible, Mets fans. I know right now you're drowning in despair — and, honestly, it's probably the right recourse; your team likely is done. But, and this is a "but" the size of the Nutty Professor's, if a Philadelphia team lets its devoted fans down (um, has that ever happened??), and your Mets decide to extricate themselves from their grave...

OK, let's move on.

Most of the time baseball analysts are spot on when they say managers aren't as important to a team's success as coaches in other sports. But no baseball guru can play down the genius decision of Arizona skipper Bob Melvin Thursday afternoon.

With showers expected in Pittsburgh, Melvin decided to rest his ace, Brandon Webb, for Friday's huge game against division foe Colorado. Instead, he started super pitcher-hitter Micah Owings, who not only shut out the dismal Pirates, but also went 4-for-4 (on a side note, why don't more pitchers try to hit like Owings: .339 BA, four HRs, 15 RBIs).

Then Webb (18-10) cooled down the Rockies' bats at Coors Field — no small feat — leading Arizona straight into the playoffs.

Not very many people will expect the no-name, no-hitting D'Backs, who at 90-70 have been outscored by several runs, to make any noise in the playoffs. That, of course, makes them all the scarier. With Melvin pulling the strings and a bunch of young, hungry players with a nothing-to-lose attitude, Arizona could shock a lot of people this October.

Just like it did throughout the season.

Standing in the way of the D'Backs is America's team, the Cubs, Cubbies, Northsiders. Whether you are a Cubs fan or not, you can't deny that having them in the playoffs is good for baseball (not to mention TV ratings). With the Yankees, Red Sox, Cubs and probably Phillies in the playoffs, this October could turn out to be one of the most remembered in baseball's long, storied history.

All season long, I didn't expect the Cubs to make the playoffs. Even after they overtook the collapsing Brewers for first place, I thought the surging Cardinals would stampede the Cubs. It just seemed like destiny.

A Cubs team with a huge payroll close to $100 million and all the parts... shouldn't make the playoffs. Makes perfect sense, doesn't it? And until Friday night, there was still that possibility.

Chicago had lost three straight to those same Mets-killing Marlins. I could sense the tension in the Windy City from nearly 300 miles away. Mercurial Carlos Zambrano was scheduled to pitch Friday night. A flameout was in the cards, wasn't it?

Not this time. The Cubs didn't waste any time in clinching the division. They didn't mess around with a Reds' lineup that was missing several key players. They kept building the lead until it was a safe 6-0. And then they waited to celebrate...

Until the final score came in from Milwaukee. The Brewers had lost. The Cubs were going back to the playoffs.

There was the traditional sipping and squirting of champagne. Relieved smiles all around. And, I'm sure, plenty of partying on the North Side.

But by the night's wee hours, the talk had turned to the playoffs. And a mission not yet accomplished.

These Cubs, despite featuring just three players from the 2003 team that came so close to the World Series (if you don't know the story, you're not reading this), know the pain that was caused four autumns ago. They're determined to bring the franchise its first World Series championship since 1908.

Their new mission begins next week. As does the Diamondbacks' mission.

By Saturday night, the other half of the National League picture might be cleared up. Or, it's possible, we'll have to wait until Sunday or Monday.

Whatever the case, the National League playoff outlook became much more lucid Friday night, turning uncertainty into ecstasy for a pair of teams while others took a step closer to October baseball and others a step toward October golf.

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