Mike Nadel: Thome's thunder makes Windy City Series possible
Bottom of the ninth inning, two outs, bases loaded. Cubs 4, White Sox 2. Lifelong Cubs fan Jim Thome at the plate, trying to help his Sox win Game 7 of the 2008 World Series. And here's Kerry Wood's 3-2 pitch ...
Outrageous? Of course. Farfetched? Sure. But hey, the regular season -- 163 games worth of season for Thome's team -- is over, and the insanity that would be an all-Chicago Fall Classic remains possible.
One city, two teams spraying champagne 10 days (and 14 Red Line stops) apart.
"It just proves Chicago is a great baseball city," Thome said. "The Cubs have had a great year, and we're so happy Sox fans get to enjoy this ride as well."
Three years after coming "home" to hunt the one treasure that has eluded his grasp during his stellar 18-year career, Thome is back in the postseason for the first time since 2001.
And the 38-year-old giant from Peoria isn't just along for the ride.
He stepped to the plate in the seventh inning of a scoreless game Tuesday night and drove Nick Blackburn's hanging changeup deep into the Windy City night. The ball sailed over the center-field fence, over two tiers of shrubs and onto a party deck an estimated 461 feet from home plate. Bing ... bang ... BOOM! ... career home run No. 541!
As more than 40,000 black-clad fans roared, Thome raised his right fist rounding first, circled the bases, gave a quick man-hug to Paul Konerko and then a big bear hug to fellow golden oldie Ken Griffey Jr.
That lone run was all impressive young lefty John Danks, reliever Bobby Jenks and the not-pretty-but-resilient White Sox needed to beat the Minnesota Twins and win the AL Central title in a one-game playoff.
When center fielder Brian Anderson ended the game with a diving catch of Alexi Casilla's sinking liner, Thome sprinted out of the dugout looking for teammates to hug.
"You put the work in and it is a long season," Thome said. "And when you get to this point, where you celebrate with your teammates, there's no better feeling."
Just like that, Sox Park became Party Central. And Chicago became Baseball Central, with the White Sox and Cubs both making the postseason for the first time since the Sox beat the Cubs in the 1906 World Series.
A hundred two years sure flew by fast, didn't they?
While the North Siders were expected to contend for a championship, the South Siders were supposed to finish third or fourth in their division. The White Sox ended up being in or near the lead most of the season but couldn't break away from the equally surprising Twins. Finally, the Sox won their final three games against three different opponents to sneak into the playoffs.
They'll open the postseason on the road against the upstart Tampa Bay Rays on Thursday, one day after the Cubs begin their best-of-5 series against the Los Angeles Dodgers at Wrigley Field.
Even after winning the 2005 World Series, the White Sox are Chicago's baseball stepchildren while the Cubs are trendy national darlings.
It says here that the Cubs will be around longer than the Sox, but wouldn't it be the ultimate in-your-face if the White Sox proved all of us doubters wrong?
That certainly would give Sox manager Ozzie Guillen a few extra chapters to write.
"If we go to the playoffs, I might make a book just about this year," he said. Asked what the title would be, irrepressible Ozzie offered this: "How the (bleep) we (bleep) in first place?"
A nice bedtime story for the kiddies.
Speaking of kiddies, how about Danks? The 23-year-old Texan, who entered the game with a 7.91 ERA in four starts against the Twins, held Minnesota to two hits over eight innings while pitching on three days' rest. He was so dominant that AL batting champion Joe Mauer actually tried to bunt his way on in the seventh.
And yet, this one was for the oldtimers. Griffey, whose perfect throw to the plate (accompanied by A.J. Pierzynski's great tag) kept the Twins from scoring in the fifth, will be in the postseason since 1997. Then there's Thome, who came within a whisker of winning the 1997 World Series with Cleveland.
Asked if he feared he might never get another shot at a title, Thome said: "Absolutely. I was telling my wife today before I left the house: 'You know, if we get in, I'm gonna truly cherish every moment of this.'"
Jim Thome has earned that right. So have his teammates. For that matter, so have the Cubs.
It's been such a wild baseball ride in Chicago in 2008. Who's to say exactly when and how it will end?
Here's how I see the postseason shaking out:
Cubs over Dodgers in 5. The Dodgers have baseball's best hitter since the trading deadline (Manny Ramirez) and hottest pitcher over the last seven weeks (Derek Lowe). And they don't have to face ridiculous pressure based on the failures of their forefathers, as the Cubs do. Still, the better team will win a series sure to make Cubbieland sweat.
Rays over White Sox in 4. The Rays are rested, fundamentally sound and extremely talented. And they have homefield advantage against a team that's lousy in domes and on artificial turf. Besides, how much can the Sox have left in the tank?
Phillies over Brewers in 4. It seems unfair for Milwaukee to ask CC Sabathia to be great on three days' rest two more times -- but I'd do it, too, if I were running the Brewers. There's little doubt the Phillies are superior, but they better wrap up this series before CC can pitch in Game 5.
Angels over Red Sox in 4. In July, the Angels added the kind of impact player (Mark Teixeira) the Red Sox subtracted (Manny Ramirez). That, combined with the iffy health of Josh Beckett, Mike Lowell and J.D. Drew, makes for an early exit for the defending champs.
LEAGUE CHAMPIONSHIP SERIES
Cubs over Phillies in 7. For the first time in 63 years, Cubbie fans get to brag about being NL champs.
Angels over Rays in 5. Too much pitching, hitting, fielding, experience and leadership.
Angels over Cubs in 6. Sorry, but I just can't pick the Cubs to win the World Series until they actually win a World Series -- a prediction philosophy that has worked well for 99 years.
Mike Nadel (firstname.lastname@example.org) is the Chicago sports columnist for GateHouse News Service. Read his blog, The Baldest Truth, at www.thebaldesttruth.com.