Solid gold players embrace the magnitude of the moment at this time of year. That was certainly the case in Milwaukee on Tuesday night, when Prince Fielder launched a T.J. Beam slider into the seats to push the Brewers past the Pirates 7-5 and send a sellout crowd at Miller Park into towel-waving euphoria.
And it was definitely the case at Shea Stadium, where Jose Reyes snapped a 1-for-16 bases-loaded funk with his 19th triple of the season to help the Mets beat the Cubs 6-2. The victory allowed New York to maintain a one-game lead over Milwaukee in the NL wild-card race and reminded the Phillies that they have some business left to finish.
Reyes' big hit was possible only after Johan Santana pitched so masterfully in his 33rd start, and the New York bullpen didn't have the heart to mess things up. In case you didn't notice, Santana now leads the National League with a 2.64 ERA, ranks second in innings pitched to Philadelphia's Cole Hamels and is tied for fourth in strikeouts. With a little help from his reliever friends, Santana would be right there with Brandon Webb and Tim Lincecum in the Cy Young conversation.
Mets color man Ron Darling put a typically insightful slant on Santana's performance at the end of Tuesday night's broadcast:
"When you back up your ace against the wall and say, 'You have to win, you have to go deep into the game,' and the guy delivers, that is very, very impressive," Darling said.
Reputations are forged and salaries are justified at this time of year. But if the games this week remind us of anything, there's a flip side to superstars' coming up big in pressure situations.
Some established players fail to respond when the scrutiny is at its peak. Chicago manager Ozzie Guillen issued a challenge to Javier Vazquez to perform Tuesday night, and Vazquez turned in four forgettable innings in a 9-3 loss to Minnesota. Only three of Vazquez's 12 victories this year have come against winning teams -- a stat that doesn't provide much comfort as he prepares for one more regular-season start this weekend.
Vazquez wasn't the only Chicago no-show Tuesday at the Metrodome: A.J. Pierzynski grounded out to end a bases-loaded threat in the fifth inning, and is batting .186 in September. "The bottom line is, I [stink]," Pierzynski told the Chicago Tribune after the game. The picture isn't much more upbeat for Jim Thome, who is hitting .190 in September, or Jermaine Dye, who has a .609 OPS this month.
For every player looking to make the difference for a contender, there's someone on an afterthought club who would love to play the role of spoiler. Sometime in the next few days, the White Sox, Twins, Mets or Brewers will be done in by a stunning hit or clutch pitching performance. And if recent history is any indication, you never know where spoilers will emerge.
One of the most poignant, karma-laden moments of the 2007 season came when Milwaukee outfielder Tony Gwynn Jr. delivered a game-tying triple off Trevor Hoffman to snatch a playoff berth from San Diego. Gwynn had spent a lot of years hanging around the San Diego clubhouse as a kid when Hoffman and his dad played together with the Padres.
Two days later, the Florida Marlins scored seven first-inning runs to knock Tom Glavine from the game and put an excruciating end to the Mets' September torment.
Tuesday night in Milwaukee, two unheralded players nearly put their stamp on the NL postseason picture. Pittsburgh left fielder Nyjer Morgan, a former hockey player who plays like a guy chasing a puck into the corner, banged out four hits to remain the hottest left fielder this side of Manny Ramirez. And Steve Pearce delivered a two-run homer off the Brewers' Guillermo Mota to give Pittsburgh a brief lead before he misplayed a Jason Kendall fly ball into a game-tying double into the right-field corner.
Which team or player is most likely to be baseball's biggest "spoiler" in the next few days? It's almost certain to come down to this weekend, when contending clubs play their season-ending series:
• Milwaukee concludes its season with a three-game home series against the Cubs starting Friday. Now that Chicago has clinched the division, will the Cubs bring their A-game or concentrate on getting healthy and prepared for the Division Series? Manager Lou Piniella showed he has October on his mind when he rested Ryan Theriot, Geovany Soto and Aramis Ramirez on Tuesday against the Mets.
• The Mets clearly have the tougher road: They have three games against Florida to close the season, and will face a gauntlet of talented young pitchers in Chris Volstad, Ricky Nolasco and Scott Olsen. The only thing Olsen would enjoy more than knocking out the Mets would be ruining the season for the Phillies, the team he once said he hated, with a win on the final day.
• In the American League, the Twins wrap it up against Kansas City, which has gotten superb pitching of late while winning 10 of its last 12 games. Royals outfielder David DeJesus, who is quietly having a fine season, has a 1.019 OPS in September, and Jose Guillen is batting .361 in the final month.
• The White Sox close things out against the Indians, who will be pushing to finish above .500 after being 16 games under in July. In the season finale Sunday, Chicago will face Cliff Lee, who wants to finish 23-3 and put the exclamation point on a Cy Young season.
Ozzie Guillen isn't the only one challenging the Chicago players to step forward. Chicago general manager Kenny Williams told reporters he accompanied the team on the current trip to Minnesota because he wants to see the look in his players' eyes at crunch time. Over the next few days, Williams will find out if they blink.
This and that
• Prince Fielder is a career 1-for-18 against Paul Maholm, who will start for Pittsburgh against CC Sabathia on Wednesday night. But Milwaukee's right-handed hitters absolutely clobber Maholm: Mike Cameron is 10-for-15 with a 1.267 slugging percentage against Maholm, while Bill Hall sports a career average of .609 (14-for-23) against the Pirates' lefty. Those are slow-pitch softball numbers.
• Don't look now, but David Wright is having another superb September in the midst of a shaky finish by the Mets. Wright produced his fifth straight multi-hit game Tuesday, and he now has a 1.013 OPS, six home runs and 19 RBIs in the final month. Albert Pujols has been the most consistent performer in the National League all season, and Ryan Howard is generating MVP buzz with his late charge, but if the Mets fail to make the playoffs, it won't be because of Wright.
"Just getting rid of some of the craziness, we kind of took off from there," first baseman Sean Casey told reporters. "But anytime you lose a guy like Manny Ramirez, you step back and say, 'Wow, hopefully we'll be OK.'"
Jason Bay, acquired from Pittsburgh at the deadline, has a .910 OPS in 45 games with Boston and an .899 OPS overall. The only three left fielders with a higher OPS this season: Ramirez, the White Sox's Carlos Quentin and the Rockies' Matt Holliday. Former Pirates manager Jim Tracy might have been right when he said Bay has the talent to be an "aircraft carrier" one day.