CHICAGO – United States Customs: Be on the lookout for a package arriving soon from Venezuela. It likely will be stamped with a skull and crossbones and addressed to Oswaldo Guillen, c/o the Chicago White Sox.
If Chicago's pitching can't stop the Minnesota Twins' lineup filled with scrappy dink-and-dunk hitters – Ozzie has taken to calling them "the piranhas," for the way they turn little nibbles into huge chunks – the manager himself will resort to whatever it takes.
"I'm going to bring some poison from Venezuela to kill the piranhas," Guillen said Sunday, minutes after the White Sox avoided a Twins sweep with 6-1 victory to pull within a half-game of the American League wild-card lead. "We got piranhas in our country. I'm going to call my dad to see how we can kill those piranhas. Put some poison in the water."
The shipment should come, oh, say, Sept. 28. A day before the White Sox head to Minneapolis to face the Twins in a three-game series to end the season, and one that Guillen expects will determine a playoff spot, if not two.
Because with the Detroit Tigers' recent struggles, the Twins sit only five behind them with a four-game series on the horizon, and the White Sox are 5½ back. Though unlikely, it's certainly conceivable that the Twins and White Sox make the postseason and the Tigers don't.
"You're looking at two teams with mid-70 wins and one team with more than 80," Twins manager Ron Gardenhire said. "It's three good teams getting after it, and that's why it's gonna be fun."
More than that, it will be fun because of the personalities involved.
There is Guillen, hilarious and offensive, a great motivator and a callous lout, full of fire and just as combustible. And catcher A.J. Pierzynski, a former Twin who flipped his bat on Friday after a home run, got drilled Sunday on the hip by Carlos Silva and answered the retaliation with a two-run home run – and another bat flip, of course.
Then there are the Twins, with MVP candidates Johan Santana, Justin Morneau and Joe Mauer, yes, but also with third baseman Nick Punto, shortstop Jason Bartlett, outfielders Jason Tyner and Lew Ford, all of whom annoy by proxy of their play.
"They're the scrappiest darn team I've seen in my whole life," Pierzynski said. "Every time you make a quality pitch, they seem to find a way to get a hit, and every time you don't make a quality pitch, they seem to find a way to get a hit."
As long as Minnesota doesn't wear out – from here on, they play 33 games in 34 days – they may very well. Francisco Liriano has been playing catch and is expected to throw off a mound this week. Barring a setback, he could return in mid-September, possibly in the rotation but more likely in the bullpen.
Chicago, meanwhile, finishes August with a three-game series against Tampa Bay before playing 18 of its final 29 games on the road.
"They know we're a pretty good ballclub," said Punto, valedictorian of the Twins' school of piranhas. "We know they're a great ballclub. We've always battled them. It's going to be a grind, and hopefully those games at the end of the season in Minnesota are for something."
Florida Marlins: Even though owner Jeffrey Loria will neither sit down nor shut up, as manager Joe Girardi reportedly asked him to do – that would be like asking a mosquito to stop biting – the Marlins have managed to win seven in a row and creep back into wild-card contention. Still, good money says Girardi won't anytime soon ask Loria to keep standing and yammering.
San Francisco Giants: The Giants are pitching as well as anyone. In August, Noah Lowry's ERA is 1.86, rookie Matt Cain's is 2.65 and ace Jason Schmidt's is 3.44. Matt Morris outdueled Aaron Harang over the weekend, and even Brad Hennessey, the fifth starter, has a 3.39 ERA on the season. With the injuries in San Diego and Cincinnati's inconsistency – and the Giants having won their last 11 of 14 – the NL wild card truly is ripe.
Jermaine Dye, Chicago White Sox: Welcome to the MVP race. With David Ortiz's candidacy likely shuttled because his team is dead in the water, Dye's gets a significant boost. He's already set a career high with 38 home runs and is well on his way to a single-season best in RBI. He hit five homers and drove in 10 last week, and Dye's .649 slugging percentage for the season ranks behind only Albert Pujols.
Alex Rodriguez, New York Yankees: It is not piling on because this is (almost) September. It would be piling on to point out that Mark Grudzielanek hit .125 this week. Oops. Still, just about the only thing Rodriguez has going for him is that his last name is easier to spell than Grudzielanek. Over the last week, he is 3 for 24 with 14 strikeouts and one walk. He has to be injured. Has to be. Because A-Rod has never, ever been close to this bad.
Detroit Tigers: No panic allowed, not yet. It's just that in August, the Tigers have struck out almost three times as much as they've walked, and their on base-plus-slugging is .738, 40 points lower than their season average, and their four starters not named Kenny Rogers are 4-11 with a 5.70 ERA, and their lead in the AL Central is down to five games, and … well, we'll just have to see if August was an aberration and this team really is as good as it showed in the season's first four months.
Milwaukee Brewers: Just when the Brewers looked like they were ready to contend, they had to hit the road, didn't they? Florida could finish a four-game sweep of the Brewers tonight at Dolphin Stadium. The road is not just the Brewers' Rubik's Cube. It is like a Rubik's Cube if they were colorblind. Only the Mets and Cardinals sport better home records in the National League than the Brewers' 39-26 at Miller Park. At the same time, Milwaukee's 23-42 road record is better than only Pittsburgh's 17-48.
Skeptical Hometown Columnist of the Week
Dan Shaughnessy, Boston Globe
Well, the cynicism is rather warranted. As Shaughnessy points out, the Red Sox – now 6½ games back of the Yankees, and 5½ behind the wild card-leading Twins – enter their series with Oakland sporting an 8-18 record in August. Manny Ramirez may or may not be as hurt as he says. Jason Varitek and Trot Nixon are still on the disabled list. The pitching is in shambles.
Shaughnessy can take it from there:
And what is this doing to Terry Francona, the manager of the 2006 Sox? He was coughing up blood and spitting it into a towel while he answered questions after yesterday's loss.
"I might have OD'd on my blood thinners," explained the beleaguered manager. "I think I took too much."
Not even his trainwreck years in the corner office at the Vet could have prepared Francona for what has happened to his Red Sox this month. Filling out his lineup card has become more difficult than organic chemistry. The Sox-Held-Hostage-By-Manny-Tour takes a toll on everyone.
Matchup of the Week
Cincinnati vs. the 405
As if braving traffic on California freeways weren't stressful enough, the Reds actually have to play baseball, too. They have six huge games this week, starting with three against NL West-leading Los Angeles and finishing with San Diego, their closest competition in the wild-card race.
After tying St. Louis atop the NL Central, the Reds have gone into fade-fast mode. In the last week, their pitching has been decidedly average (4.35 ERA) and their hitting worse (.725 OPS).
Every time the Reds have purged a few games, though, they have managed to stay above .500.
Cincinnati lost the last three of its series at San Francisco, running its record to 8-11 against the NL West this season. Anything worse might cost the Reds a playoff berth.
Playoff odds report
From the fine folks at Baseball Prospectus, here are the chances each particular team will make the postseason, determined by computers that simulated the remainder of the season 1 million times.
New York Yankees: 97.84 percent
Detroit Tigers: 97.57 percent
Oakland A's: 80.00 percent
Minnesota Twins*: 58.51 percent
Chicago White Sox: 41.00 percent
Los Angeles Angels: 16.68 percent
Boston Red Sox: 4.23 percent
New York Mets: 100 percent (actual: 99.99985)
St. Louis Cardinals: 83.64 percent
Los Angeles Dodgers: 74.10 percent
San Diego Padres: 40.09 percent
Cincinnati Reds: 37.98 percent
Philadelphia Phillies*: 20.43 percent
San Francisco Giants: 16.58 percent
Florida Marlins: 6.45 percent
Houston Astros: 6.10 percent
* – Wild card leader: The Twins are at 49.35 percent, ahead of the White Sox at 35.94 percent, and the Phillies at 20.42 percent are ahead of a gaggle of teams, including the current leaders, the Reds (18.79 percent), and the Padres (15.88 percent)
The final word
"There haven't been too many times where I've looked forward to a simple game of catch." – Tom Glavine, Mets pitcher, who has resumed throwing after doctors feared he might have a blood clot in his left arm.
He didn't, and he's scheduled to pitch this week, which also means he'll be around for September and October, the two greatest months of the year.