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Baseball drama: no-hitter and close races

With two weeks left in the regular season there's a lot of excitement still to be found in major league baseball. Sunday night, Carlos Zambrano of the Chicago Cubs no-hit the Houston Astros, 5-0. Zambrano hadn't pitched September 2 due to a sore rotator cuff, making the feat even more amazing. It's the first Cubs no-hitter in 36 years and the first no-hitter in a game played at a neutral site since 1900. The game was moved from Houston's Minute Maid Park to Milwaukee's Miller Park because the Houston area is still struggling to recover from the effects of Hurricane Ike.

Despite the Astros' being the "home" team the crowd of 23,441 (not bad for a game scheduled on a day's notice) was mostly comprised of Cubs fans, with Milwaukee being much closer to Chicago than Houston.

And then there are the playoff races. On Wednesday, I posted a message on the discussion board that included this brilliant bit: "Except for the AL Central, in every playoff race the leader is ahead by 3 or more games in the loss column. Could this mean much less drama in the final week?" What was I thinking? Besides the Minnesota Twins, the Boston Red Sox and Philadelphia Phillies are all within 2 games in the loss column in their respective divisions, and 1 game (or 1.5 in the Twins' case) overall. The NL Wild Card race has also tightened.

After losing 2 games at Fenway Park to AL East leader Tampa Bay in dramatic fashion, Boston regained ground by cooling off the red-hot-but-way-too-late Blue Jays while the Rays lost 2 of 3 to the Yankees, who have nothing left to play for but the closing week of their stadium. The loser of the AL East race will likely be the AL Wild Card representative, though. There is no such certainty in the NL.

The Milwaukee Brewers had a 4-game lead going into the first of a four-game series in Philadelphia. They leave town tied with the Phillies for the Wild Card after being swept, and the Astros are within two games despite being no-hit by Zambrano.

The Brewers had the option of pitching CC Sabathia Sunday against the Phillies on three days' rest. They decided against it, preferring to have Sabathia pitch the first of a three-game set in Chicago. After Friday's game was rained out, the Brewers' players had to give their approval to the game being rescheduled for Monday, when both the Phils and Brewers had an off-day (since the labor agreement bars teams from being scheduled to play on more than 20 consecutive days). That would've allowed Sabathia to pitch that day on 4 days' rest. The players voted against giving up their off-day.

Sabathia will start on Tuesday against a Cubs team now up by 7.5 in the NL Central, while in the rescheduled game Sunday night Jeff Suppan allowed 6 runs, 8 hits and 4 walks in 3 2/3 innings in losing to Brett Myers -- who was the second Phils starter (after Jamie Moyer, who got the win on Thursday) to pitch and win on 3 days' rest in the crucial series. If the Brewers' collapse is complete 14 days from now and they miss the playoffs entirely, the decision to hold Sabathia back should go down as a major blunder.

Speaking of collapses...as if the Phils weren't happy enough with moving into a tie with the Brewers, the New York Mets' bullpen woes continue to haunt them. Mets relievers coughed up two more late leads this weekend, losing 2 of 3 to the Atlanta Braves. This allowed the Phils' 4-game sweep of the Brewers to cut their NL East deficit from 3 1/2 games to just 1. This New York Post back page headline from Friday might be just a bit premature.