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Baffoe: Cubs-White Sox Is Unconventionally Interesting Again

By Tim Baffoe--

(CBS) Those who invest much emotion particular to the Crosstown Series between the Chicago Cubs and Chicago White Sox are a dying breed. That's a good thing, because the Chicago baseball "rivalry" is one of the dumbest in sports. Only in this town could there be mutual Napoleonic distaste for a team that's not even in your league, let alone division and that hardly affects your place in the standings.

Ironically, it seems as though the fervor with which fans of the respective clubs froth at the situation of the other team has been diminished over the years that the White Sox and Cubs have had to play each other in the regular season. It's weird how hating from a distance becomes harder to do the more familiar something becomes, huh? A bit of novelty still exists to the two annual series, but rather than "Woo baby, let's crush these (melon farmers)," it's more, "Oh, that's this weekend? OK."

This weekend of this weekend has a particular rejuvenation to it, though. Even if it's purely coincidental.

The Cubs are the story of the National League right now as they head to U.S. Cellular Field on Friday having won seven straight games and 13 of their last 14. With one of the top pitching staffs in the game and a group of raw hitters that's starting to all cook together, the Cubs have a 4.5-game lead for the final NL wild-card spot, an 89.8 percent chance of playing postseason ball and are just a 1.5 games behind the Pittsburgh Pirates for the wild-card game's home-field advantage.

Joe Maddon has been managing of late as though his team is already in October.

"Right now it feels like we're in a playoff game every day," rookie Kyle Schwarber said after knocking two home runs in Thursday as the Cubs finished a sweep of the Milwaukee Brewers. "That's the mindset we need to have."

On the South Side, the White Sox still believe they're a playoff team. At five games out of the final AL wild-card spot, that faith isn't totally blind, but jumping five teams to get there lends a hard dose of pragmatism to it all. Pitching has the White Sox in a place where a month ago nobody thought that they would be remotely close to. According to Fangraphs' WAR calculations, the White Sox have the sixth best staff in baseball, right behind the Cubs. And it wasn't too long ago that all the Cubs had to keep them above water in the playoff hunt was their pitching.

To their credit, the White Sox haven't thrown in the towel.

"We're right there," right-hander Jeff Samardzija told the Tribune. "The way we play at times, it's pretty special. If we can figure out a way to be consistent with that play and finish strong, with these two wild-card spots you never know what's going to happen."

So with that learned hatred of the other side becoming harder and harder to conjure up twice a year, the two sides of town just so happen to run into each other on a roll. Even if it isn't the white heat of the North Siders, sweeping the Angels keeps the White Sox in a playoff conversation, and they could possibly be the speed bump the Cubs finally hit.

"(The Cubs) are playing well, so you want it to be fun and meaningful games," White Sox manager Robin Ventura said. "I think we're getting to that point."

And we as viewers are at a point for the first time in a long time where Cubs vs. White Sox is more than about bragging rights or some remedial Cup. This weekend is about important baseball and fun baseball as a stepping stone to something larger for both teams. The needle will move on the North and South Sides — maybe one more than the other — as to an October fate. Even if the excitement scale tilts heavier toward the Cubs, as a bit of gravy the White Sox get a chance to play spoiler while still clinging to odds-defying playoff aspirations.

It's not the Civil War feeling of old, which in retrospect treaded more on silliness than respectable rivalry. But individual team situations happen to intersect this weekend in a way that should make the Crosstown Series important again. Even if it's not for traditional reasons.

Tim Baffoe is a columnist for Follow Tim on Twitter @TimBaffoe. The views expressed on this page are those of the author, not CBS Local Chicago or our affiliated television and radio stations.

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