Tuesday, September 18, 2007

It's almost October


October — while still 13 days away — is most definitely in the air.

Just reference the past few days.

The intensity of the games.

The crowd noise.

The comebacks.

The long games (due to multiple pitching changes).

The brisk temperatures.

Yes, it's almost time for playoff baseball, for the second best month on the American sports calender (behind March).

The Yankees and Red Sox spoiled us with a sneak preview this past weekend. Believe me when I say there's a reason this rivalry gets double the attention of any other baseball matchup. It's that much better, that much more exciting.

On Friday night I thought the Red Sox — with a 7-2 lead — were well on their way to a pivotal victory, a win that would place the Yanks in a deep, deep hole in the American League East and — combined with the Tigers' victory — cut their wild card lead to two and a half games.

But I looked up an hour later, and the Yanks were ahead 8-7 (which turned out to be the final score). As the absurd highlights demonstrated, New York had scored six runs in the eighth inning before the Red Sox could record a single out.

Red Sox' Southpaw reliever Hideki Okajima, who hadn't allowed a home run by a left-handed hitter all season, gave up back-to-back jacks.

Despite the voluble Yankees' offense, the comeback — which also came against indomitable Sox' closer Jonathan Papelbon — was shocking... and disturbing (if you're a part of Red Sox Nation or a Tigers fan).

While the Yankees, obviously a bit worn out from Friday's showing, didn't give much in a 10-1 loss Saturday, Sunday night's ESPN game — even more than Friday's comeback — came across as October baseball, and I was simply watching on TV.

In the eighth inning, with the score 1-1, Curt Schilling and catcher Jason Varitek met at the mound before every pitch of a crucial at bat for Derek Jeter, with runners on second and third and two out. Obviously, the final discussion proved ineffective, as the always-clutch Jeter ripped a fastball over the Green Monster.

Despite Jeter's blast, you didn't see any Red Sox fans heading for the exits. They all knew a comeback was in the making. And they guessed right. Against arguably the best closer of all time, Mariano Rivera, in the ninth, the Sox made the score 4-3 and loaded the bases for their clutch mastermind, David "Big Papi" Ortiz.

My friend sitting next to me guaranteed a hit and a Red Sox win. I'm sure many inside Fenway were thinking the same thing. But Rivera jammed Ortiz with a high fastball, which the slugger popped to Jeter.

And the game was over. But it was just the beginning of this fall's drama.

Entering Monday, the Tigers trailed the Yankees by a mere two and a half games in the wild card and were four and a half games back of Cleveland heading into a three-game set at Jacobs Field. While Tigers-Indians doesn't receive close to the attention of Red Sox-Yankees, it didn't fail to deliver the same kind of drama witnessed over the weekend.

In front of a packed crowd which stood for most of the final few innings, Cleveland erased a four-run deficit and won 6-5 in 11 innings on Casey Blake's second walk-off homer in a matter of four days.

The Jake went bonkers. Just like in "Major League," Cleveland can smell the playoffs. The Indians now own a commanding five and a half game advantage over the Tigers. Another win in the next two games, and you can almost pencil it in.

It's beginning to look like the spring, when the Cavaliers beat the favored Pistons in the Eastern Conference Finals. A little deja vu.

But don't count out the Tigers just yet — not from the wild card or division race.

If these last few days have taught us anything, it's that during this time of year, anything can happen in baseball.

Sounds like October, doesn't it?

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