When the San Diego Padres beat the Chicago Cubs on Wednesday night, they guaranteed that the three-game series against the San Francisco Giants to end the year would be meaningful.
Exactly how meaningful remains to be seen, as the Giants continue to play good baseball.
With their own victory over the Arizona Diamondbacks, the good guys maintained their two-game lead on the Friars in the loss column.
Should the Gents win again on Thursday, they'll ensure that only a sweep would prevent them from reaching the playoffs for the first time since 2003 regardless of what the Fathers do in their finale with the Lovable Losers.
But, should SF lose and SD win, then the intensity for that final weekend will be unlike anything the City has witnessed around a diamond for almost a decade. Only a game would separate the clubs in that scenario.
Granted, the Atlanta Braves could kill all the suspense because they're only one game ahead of the Pads in the loss column. The Bravos will face the Philadelphia Phillies while the National League West front-runners are renewing hostilities.
Nevertheless, the eyes of Major League Baseball will be on AT&T Park from Friday until Sunday as one of the two remaining pennants up for grabs gets decided by the two teams fighting over the flag.
What they'll see is San Francisco charge into the playoffs for these 10 reasons (in no particular order).
And, yes, I'm knocking on wood as I type each paragraph...
Better late than never.
Much has been written here and across the country about the sudden demise of the Kung Fu Panda in his sophomore season. As frustrating as it's been to see him suffer, it's been even worse to see him tease.
Every so often, Pablo would mount a little hot streak that would inspire faith in the faithful, only to see it dashed several strikeout-plagued games later. This time around the bend, Giant fans have no illusions about a permanent revival, but they don't need them.
Because Sandoval doesn't need to contribute for weeks or months, he just needs to do it for three more days. Notice the "more" in there.
It's appropriate because the third baseman has seen a slight spike in his performance at the plate since being benched for two-consecutive contests.
He's riding a nice 7-for-20 with two doubles, three walks, and only three whiffs.
Those are mild numbers representing a massive improvement.
With the Padres only chucking one southpaw at los Gigantes over the weekend (Clayton Richard), expect Pablo to make a few key contributions with the lumber.
Sure, the Giants' closer has induced as many heart attacks as he has recorded saves (an MLB-leading 47).
Wilson is nothing if not excruciating to watch nail down a close game, but he's also been highly effective—blowing only five chances all year.
However, the most reassuring thing about San Francisco's premiere fireman is a relatively new development.
Wilson was almost exclusively a one-inning, three-outs kind of closer when he first took the job.
Perhaps it was lingering caution after he blew out his elbow in college, but—whatever it is—it's gone now.
When Mariano Rivera was at his peak, people would rant and rave about all the four- or five-out saves he'd record.
Well, 16 of Brian's 68 appearances have required the tattooed twirler to retire at least four batters.
Not every one of the 16 has resulted in a save, but only two resulted in blown saves.
That's a nice security blanket to have at the back of the 'pen and he figures to get the call at least once over the weekend.
Expect him to answer it as he has all year.
If you look closely at that picture, you can see that Uribe isn't actually touching the ground—he's quite literally (and momentarily) walking on air.
Which is fitting considering he's inspired the same feeling in the San Francisco Bay Area more than a few times since he joined up with the franchise in 2009.
Since the beginning of last season, Jose's relative hasn't been the team's best hitter or its most consistent one.
Instead, Uribe has been one of the most clutch splinters the City has seen in recent memory.
And the trend doesn't appear to be ending soon.
After the Giants lost a crucial game to the Cubbies in Chicago and the woeful offense had mustered a single run in two games, the Swiss Army knife on defense took it upon himself to put the fellas on a plane to Colorado in victorious style.
He crushed two big flies and drove in six runs.
That's good for what ails an offense, but he wasn't done.
On Tuesday, locked in another critical matchup with the Snakes, Uribe blasted another no-doubter into the left-field stands to tie the game and force momentum back into the San Francisco dugout.
You can bet Juan is looking forward to the big series, which generally means Giant fans can look forward to some more heroics from yet another beloved Uribe.
Cainer has been spinning blinders of late from the mound.
While the entire staff has been video-game good in the month of September, the youngest starter not named Madison Bumgarner has been almost as good as Tim Lincecum (who has been arguably the best starter in baseball).
Timmy's made six starts and thrown 41.2 innings; Matty's taken the bump five times for a total of 37 frames.
Yes, the Freak has been the more effective pitcher, but the big right-hander hasn't been serving up grapefruits on a tee—3-0, 2.19 ERA, 0.65 WHIP, 29:4 K:BB, and an opponents' slash line of .154/.185/.277.
In fact, if Lincecum hadn't suddenly gone all, well, Lincecum on his running mate, Matt Cain would be the talk of the baseball world.
He'll get the pearl on Saturday against Tim Stauffer.
**Update: Cain has now been moved up to pitch the opener of the big three-game series with the Friars. He'll be on normal rest while Zito slides back to Saturday and gets two extra days to cool his spikes. Or heat them up...
Is Alanis Morrissette out there? Because real irony would be if both the Tampa Bay Rays and San Francisco Giants ended up facing each other in the postseason—the former cut Burrell he was so useless, and the latter would owe much of its presence in the Fall Classic to the same man.
Regardless of what ultimately does happen, Pat the Bat has returned to his Bay Area roots like the proverbial prodigal son.
Since arriving in the City via Triple-A, the former Phillie and Ray has been a revelation of power in the middle of what used to be a modest batting order.
Along with a few others, Burrell has done a lot of the heavy lifting...like Wednesday night when his three-run jimmy-jack put the team ahead for good and allowed the Gents to maintain their two-game buffer.
Of course, there was also the already-legendary bomb that beat the Los Angeles Dodgers in July, the two long balls and five runs batted in that basically beat the Cubs in August, and yet another tater that helped spark the lads to the big comeback in Chavez Ravine on Sept. 4.
It would seem the baseball gods have had a soft spot for the left fielder ever since he arrived to suit up for his hometown nine.
So would it be any surprise at all to find Pat Burrell in the middle of the action this weekend?
Pick a pitcher, any pitcher from the Giants' staff and chances are he's having a ridiculous September.
Dirty Sanchez is no different. Like the rest of his mates save for Barry Zito, the filthy southpaw has posted some staggering numbers in the ninth month—5 GS, 30.2 IP, 3-1, 1.17 ERA, 0.95 WHIP, 37:14 K:BB, and an opponents' slash line of .147/.154/.275.
Perhaps most impressive, however, is the fact that Jonathan is currently working on a stretch of seven good-to-great trips to the bump—an unprecedented achievement in consistency for the sporadic flamethrower.
All of this is very bad news for the Padres because even the inconsistent Jonathan Sanchez owned them.
In 18 appearances covering 77 innings, the 27-year-old has a 2.69 ERA, 1.05 WHP, 79:35 K:BB, and an opponents' slash line of .172/.270/.269. Oh yeah, there's also that no-hitter he authored against the Friars in 2009 at AT&T Park.
There are no guarantees, as Jonathan himself found out, but the Giants have to feel good about their chances with Sanchez toeing the slab in the finale against a suddenly mortal Mat Latos.
The Giant faithful got a terrible fright when the speedy center fielder went under the knife for an emergency appendectomy in early-to-mid September.
The spark plug at the top of the lineup had been struggling massively for a couple weeks before the malady was diagnosed, but his loss still felt suspiciously like the coup de grace.
Except it wasn't.
The rest of the fellas rallied around their shelved teammate and actually made his absence easy to forget.
But the little guy returned and, after a bit of a set-back, he looks no worse for the wear now. Torres is back to tracking fly balls and covering huge expanses of grass with fluid ease.
Even better, he's managed to yank a triple, a tater, and swipe a base in the three full games he's played since his return.
Remember how devastating his rare blend of thump and speed was when Andres was raking?
Yeah, so does the rest of the league.
And just imagine if the appendix issue was sapping some of his energy and strength?
San Diego might not have to imagine it.
The Giants' firemen have been a quiet strength of the organization for a couple years now, but the collective really upped the ante in 2010.
On the year, the relievers have been dealing dirt since April and there hasn't been much let up aside from the normal stretches of imperfection.
And, like the starters, the bullpen has found yet another gear in September:
Ramon Ramirez—8 GP, 8.2 IP, 0.00 ERA, 0.35 WHIP, 4:1 K:BB, and an opponents' slash line of 0.71/.103/.175
Sergio Romo—11 GP, 6.2 IP, 0.00 ERA, 0.45 WHIP, 10:1 K:BB, and an opponents' slash line of .091/.130/.136
Santiago Casilla—10 GP, 9.2 IP, 0.93 ERA, 0.93 WHIP, 6:2 K:BB, and an opponents' slash line of .212/.278/.273
Javier Lopez—10 GP, 4.1 IP, 2.08 ERA, 0.69 WHIP, 4:0 K:BB, and an opponents' slash line of .200/.200/.200
Jeremy Affeldt—8 GP, 7 IP, 2.57 ERA, 1.29 WHIP, 5:1 K:BB, and an opponents' slash line of .286/.310/.286
You can even toss Chris Ray and Dan Runzler in there as being viable options despite a couple rough outings for the former and an injury bugaboo for the latter.
Anyway you frame the situation, los Gigantes have some serious weapons coming out of the 'pen, especially when you consider the closer got a slide to himself.
Yeah, yeah, the San Diego bullpen is great and you're not gonna win too many games if they get their arms on a lead.
Says here the same is true in San Francisco, and we're gonna see proof this weekend.
In the last few days, we've seen several career-long playoff prayers get answered.
The Phillies helped get Mike Sweeney to the second season for the first time in his long major-league tenure and the Texas Rangers did the same for Michael Young.
San Francisco could outdo both Philly and Texas by sending not one, but TWO perpetual also-rans to the Promised Land.
Aubrey Huff currently has over 1,400 professional baseball games to his credit without so much as sniffing the postseason.
Freddy Sanchez can't hang in that rarefied air, but he's closing in on 1000 games without a playoff berth (that's an exaggeration; he currently has 841 games played).
Neither man wants to see his best chance at fulfilling the dream come this close to fruition only to bleed away in the last four contests of the 162-game slate.
Although Sanchez aggravated a shoulder strain turning a double play recently and hasn't been playing,
Huff's been doing enough damage for the both of 'em. The first baseman/outfielder is eight for his last 16 with a double, a home run, and four runs scored.
Between his scorching splinter and a little karmic contribution from Freddy, the consummate pros might finally be able to check a biggie off the baseball career bucket list.
It says here even the baseball gods aren't cruel enough to crash their dates with destiny.
Not at this late hour.
The Giants will have several advantages going into the enormous weekend series with the Pads—they have had the best pitching in all of baseball for the last month, they will be the team surging as opposed to the one floundering, and they will have a better veteran balance than the younger Friars.
But the two biggest advantages haven't been mentioned.
First and most obviously, the trio for all the marbles will be played at AT&T Park.
Granted, the home field hasn't been the crazy advantage it's been in years past and San Diego has felt too damn comfortable in the shadows of the City in 2010.
The Pads have won five of the six contests played in the Gents' home this year and clearly aren't overwhelmed by the confines.
However, they will have never faced an AT&T crowd like the one that will greet it on Friday, Saturday, and Sunday.
Add to that maniacal atmosphere the considerable pressure of what's at stake—not just a playoff berth, but one last chance to avoid a monumental collapse—and it's no stretch to imagine the Padres playing puckered.
Second, there is the matter of the slouching beast waiting around the corner.
Tim Lincecum took his start on normal rest Wednesday against the Arizona Diamondbacks so that he'd be ready to go on normal rest for a possible tie-breaker should a 163rd game be needed.
In other words, San Francisco can draw confidence and calm from an ace up its sleeve.
Meanwhile, San Diego is hiding Chris Young.
That's no malicious swipe at Young—he's been a great pitcher in the past and he's posted insane numbers in '10. The problem is that he's made all of four starts due to health concerns. By contrast, the Franchise has five wins in the month of September.
I'm thinking the Giants like those potential odds.
Of course, while unmitigated optimism is fun, reality has a way of infringing on best-case scenarios.
Anything can and usually does happen on a Major League Baseball field so San Francisco could be playing the Toledo Mud Hens and nothing would be carved in stone.
But the cave walls are covered in writing and most of it bodes well for the Giants.
All that's left now is to break out the hammer and chisel.