- Jayson Stark, Senior Writer, ESPN.com
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CHICAGO -- This can't be happening. Can it?
A 15-game lead, melting like the polar ice caps?
A magical season, turning messier than a mudslide?
This can't be happening. But it is. It's happening to those Chicago White Sox. Right before our eyes.
Seven weeks ago, the White Sox were 34 games over .500 -- and the Cleveland Indians were four over. Four.
So everybody who figured they'd be waking up on the morning of Sept. 20, finding those same two teams suddenly separated by 2½ games, raise your hands. We'd like to come hang out with you on your next trip to the Powerball machine.
But that's where these White Sox and these Indians stand right now -- 2½ games apart. With nearly two weeks of this season left to be played. With five more games left against each other. Amazing.
That gap shrunk by yet another game Monday night, from 3½ down to 2½, on a pulsating pennant-race evening on the South Side of Chicago, when these two teams finally met for the first time since July.
It shrunk on the second-biggest hit in the life of the legendary Aaron Bleeping Boone -- a two-run, eighth-inning, game-winning single off a man throwing 99 miles an hour (White Sox smokeballer Bobby Jenks).
It shrunk when a spectacular, roller coaster of a game ended Indians 7, White Sox 5.
But most of all, it shrunk in a way that made you wonder: Could it possibly shrink any more?
"You know what?" Boone would say later. "I know no one believes me. But we don't really care. We just want to keep playing the way we've been playing."
OK, we know he really, truly means that -- but let's rephrase that remark for him:
The Indians, as a point of philosophy, don't particularly want to care about those standings. But they're at a point now where they're not allowed to forget them -- because those of us who do care are rude enough to bring them up every 12 seconds.
Whether the Indians want to know this or not, they are now within reach of doing something not just historic but borderline impossible. Wiping out a 15-game lead with two months to play? What are the odds of that?
Well, we'll frame it for you in a way that will make those odds realllll clear:
• Only one team in the history of baseball -- the 1914 "Miracle" Braves -- was ever 15 games out at any point of any season and came back to finish first. But that team fell 15 back in the first week of July, not the first week of August.
• The biggest Aug. 1 lead any team in history has ever blown, on the other hand, is 11 games -- by the 1995 Angels. But these Indians already have made up more games than that in just a month and a half.
• The White Sox, meanwhile, started out their season by going 62-29 in their first 91 games. Only two teams in history ever roared out to a start that good, were in undisputed possession of first place after those 91 games and didn't finish first -- the 1978 Red Sox (up 8½) and the 1942 Dodgers (up 6½).
• But no team that started 62-29 or better ever finished its season by playing sub-.500 baseball for the rest of the season. The White Sox, we regret to report, are 28-30 since then.
So by playing the way they've been playing, the White Sox opened the door for these Indians to do something that wasn't even on their radar screens seven weeks ago -- win a division that seemed like it had already been clinched. On about Memorial Day.
"I don't think we ever really thought about the White Sox," said Monday's starting pitcher for Cleveland, Kevin Millwood. "We were just thinking about the wild card. Now we find ourselves in a situation where it's possible. But I don't think we're too concerned about that. We just want to get in the playoffs, one way or the other."
But trying to figure out which way they might get in -- now that's the part that makes their heads hurt.
They're behind (in the division) -- but they're also ahead (in the wild-card race).
They're the chaser (of the White Sox) -- but they're also the chase-ee (by the Yankees).
They're running two races at the same time here. And that's a sure prescription for vertigo. Heck, no wonder they don't want to look at those standings.
"It's confusing," Millwood said. "You watch the guys in front of you -- but you're also watching the guys behind you. You get here, and you keep forgetting you're actually out front (by a game and a half) in one of these situations. It's definitely a weird situation to be in."
But if it feels weird to them, just try to put yourself in the shoes of those White Sox. They've led the AL Central for every day of this season. They were 22 games over .500 before Cleveland had even spent one day over .500. And now people are telling the White Sox at least they have the wild card to fall back on.
Needless to say, that's not quite what these guys had in mind.
Asked if he was "concerned" to find that once-Kilimanjaro-esque lead of his down to 2½ games, White Sox manager Ozzie Guillen lurched into a broken-glass-half-full mode Monday night.
"I'll be concerned," Guillen said, "when we're one game behind."
But if he ever does find himself one game behind, we're betting "concerned" won't be the first word out of his mouth. Actually, we're betting you won't be able to print the first word out of his mouth.
Realistically, the White Sox don't have a whole lot to worry about. If they even win just two of the five games they have left with Cleveland, it would mean the Indians can't catch them without help. And there won't be much time left to get that help.
But on Monday night at U.S. Cellular Field, it sure didn't feel like the drama of this matchup was overrated.
Not when the Indians lurched in front, 4-0, after 4½ innings.
Not when the White Sox answered with four spine-tingling runs in the bottom of the fifth.
Not when Carl Everett put the Sox ahead with an electric seventh-inning homer off Rafael Betancourt -- a bolt that sent fireworks hurtling through the September skies and seemed to make their seven-week tumble seem like just another bad dream.
But then, nearly 23 months after his unforgettable Game 7 home run off Tim Wakefield, Boone would rise up one more time. Fighting off two straight 99-mph whooshers from Jenks with two on in the eighth. Then finding a way to lay off two carnivorous breaking balls. Then stroking one more flameball through the middle for a hit that sucked every ounce of oxygen out of 35,748 spectators who couldn't believe this was happening.
"I'd never faced that guy," Boone said afterward. "All we had on him was that the guy threw really hard, with a big overhand curve. Well, ... both were true."
But so was the wave of his bat in one of the biggest moments of his career. And when Travis Hafner knocked in an insurance run in the ninth, and Bob Wickman huffed and puffed and retired Paul Konerko with the tying runs on base to end it -- it was official:
The AL Central is now legitimately available for the winning.
Those of us who look for the big picture know just how historic a feat we might be witnessing here. But the men who now have that history within their reach have a hard time running that part of this through their brains right now.
"I don't allow myself to think about that," Boone said, "because for us, it's just about taking every day as it comes and staying in the moment. You can't make up a four-game lead or an eight-game lead in one night. You can't win next week's games tonight. So that's what this game's really about -- just staying in the moment."
He plays on a team that is now 41-17 since the last time these two clubs met. On a team that has won six in a row, 13 of 14 and 33 of its last 44. But when he was asked if there is such a thing as momentum, Boone replied: "I don't think so."
"I always hear that word," he said. "But I don't think so. I used to always hear that word in New York -- with New York-Boston. But that series is a perfect example of why momentum is such an overused word. They beat your brains in, 16-0, and you hear about momentum. Then the next day, it's 4-0 the other way. So momentum is there one minute. And then it gets squashed by one big play the other way."
But whatever it is these Indians have going, it is beginning to look as unstoppable as an avalanche. A "roll" is the term Aaron Boone decided to hang on it Monday night.
"Sometimes," he said, "you just get on a roll as a team."
Wait a second, we protested. What the heck is the difference between momentum, we asked, and a roll?
"Aw, I don't know," said Aaron Boone. "I just play."
So feel free to attach whatever word you want to describe what it is that's going on here. That's our job. The Cleveland Indians? They just play.
Jayson Stark is a senior writer for ESPN.com.