In the moments after the Chicago White Sox' improbable victory in Game 2 of the World Series, Paul Konerko stood before the television camera with a look that mixed exhilaration with the exhaustion of yet another down-to-the-wire finish.
"It's like playing ourselves," he marveled of his opponents, the Houston Astros.
It was clearly a compliment. Should the White Sox parlay their two-games-to-none series lead into a championship, they should be fitted for studded collars and leashes, not World Series rings: For all their talent, they are the junkyard dogs of major-league baseball, clawing their way toward a title. They're doing it with the acrobatics of a Cirque du Soleil third baseman, the corn-fed fastballs of a closer as wide as he is tall, and the nightly heroics of new stars.
And the Astros are just like them. The names on their shirts are different, but it is clear that there is not a wax paper's width of difference between the two teams. This year has been a PhD-level lesson in perseverance for both clubs, pushing each to the brink of a spectacular failure.
Tuesday night, the scene shifts to Houston for Game 3, but the story remains unchanged. For now, it is the Astros who are staring up at the impossible.
But in this series, perhaps, adversity could be the greatest equalizer.
"The one thing that defined [the Astros] is resilience," says Ken Rosenthal of FOXSports.com. "Being down 2-0 is probably less uncomfortable for them than it would be for many other teams."
From the beginning, this was always a series bound to be balanced on a blade's edge. The White Sox and Astros are two teams spun from the same copy machine, built to win not with firepower that blasts games beyond all doubt by the fifth inning, but with pitching - and the fortitude that such a strategy requires.
Pitching duels, after all, are like Bush v. Gore played out over nine innings - without the Supreme Court to conveniently settle things. They are nervy affairs that often require all 54 outs, and sometimes a bit more - as in Houston's division-series-clinching 18-inning win over Atlanta this year.
In Chicago last weekend, the pitching might not have been up to expectations, but the drama was. In a series like this, where every out is a war in miniature, Joe Crede's diving stops at third were as celebrated as Bobby Jenks's 100 m.p.h. fastballs. Chris Burke's textbook slide at home was - for a moment - as significant as Konerko's grand slam. It was tightrope baseball - and should continue to be.
In truth, the Astros have been playing that way since the first months of the season, when they lost 30 of their first 45 games. Only one other team has ever made the playoffs after being 15 games below .500, and that was back before the days of Theodore Roosevelt and the Bull Moose Party. This season, sportswriters were already weighing who should be traded in a Great Astros Diaspora.
But then a curious thing happened. The Astros didn't give up. Their charge to the postseason was neither miraculous nor the stuff of fairy tales. Rather, it was a determined grind toward October one inning at a time - more grim than Brothers Grimm. And in this best-of-seven World Series, the Astros aren't about to hit the reset button.
Instead, they'll do what they've always done - pitch well and hope for the best at bat. And there is reason to hope. At home, they were baseball's second best team. Only the Boston Red Sox had a better home record this season.
Yet it is the other Sox that seem to have picked up where the Red Sox left off last season, when they won their first World Series in 86 years. First, there's the history: The White Sox' last title came just a year before the Red Sox won in 1918. Then there are the apparent acts of providence - ranging from a string of peculiar (and favorable) calls by umpires to Game 2's winning home run Scott Podsednik, who had not hit a single home run during 129 regular-season games.
Yet little more than a month ago, the White Sox were on the verge of one of the biggest collapses in major-league history. After building a 15-game lead in the American League Central, the Sox entered the last weekend of the season just three games ahead of the Cleveland Indians. [Editor's note: The original version misstated Chicago's place in the league standings at the end of the season.]
Since that point, however, the White Sox have lost only one game, going 12-1 against four of baseball's best teams - the Indians, Red Sox, Los Angeles Angels, and Astros.
"There's something about them now," says Rosenthal. "Chicago's knack for winning stands out."