By BEN WALKER
AP Baseball Writer
A black cat walking across the field. A surprise note from a former star. An innocent ground ball that takes an incredible hop.
Sure, a big bop from Manny Ramirez, Ryan Howard or Evan Longoria can help a team make the playoffs. But oh, those little omens can really push a team toward October.
"Sometimes you hope fate falls in your favor," Milwaukee center fielder Mike Cameron said after a late comeback. "Baseball's a funny game. It builds character. It'll bring you joy. It'll bring you a lot, a lot of anger sometimes."
No such worries at Wrigley Field and Fenway Park -- stadium workers can begin putting up the decorative bunting. Also ready is devilish Tropicana Field, where the Tampa Bay Rays have sold out the first two postseason games in team history.
With less than a week left, races remain. Time to make a move or succumb to, as Mets manager Jerry Manuel conjured up, the "the burden, the clouds, the demons, whatever you want to call them."
Either the Chicago White Sox or Minnesota will win the AL Central, the loser is out. Same goes for the Los Angeles Dodgers and Arizona in the NL West.
The Mets still hope it's their season, a year after one of the biggest collapses in history. Having blown another late division lead to Philadelphia, they're trying to fend off Milwaukee for the wild card.
And that's where that little grounder came into play.
It definitely didn't look like the Mets' night Tuesday, when they fell behind early against the NL Central champion Chicago Cubs. Needing a big hit, they got it in the most unlikely way.
Or, as Cubs manager Lou Piniella called it, "a magic bat trick."
Mets pitcher Johan Santana hit a hopper up the middle that looked to be a certain out. But his black maple bat shattered, and the barrel went skipping past the pitcher's mound. As shortstop Ronny Cedeno got ready to field the ball, it somehow glanced off the tumbling, broken piece of wood. The ball deflected off Cedeno's glove and went for an infield single.
"It should count for two hits," Santana said. "I was just lucky."
No one could recall seeing quite such a play and, no surprise, it keyed a fifth-inning rally that led to a victory.
"A fickle, funny game," Mets third baseman David Wright said.
Older Cubs fans didn't find it so whimsical. They still remember all too well another night at Shea Stadium.
Back in September 1969, the hard-luck Cubs brought a narrow lead into New York. Then in the first inning, with Tom Seaver pitching against them, Chicago saw something more scary: a black cat skittered onto the field and stared up close at several players in the dugout.
Later, a few of the Cubs admitted it kind of spooked them to see that slinky feline. Within a matter of days, the Cubs fell out of first place and the Mets were on their way to an improbable World Series championship.
The Phillies got a boost earlier this month when Hall of Famer Mike Schmidt e-mailed a note to manager Charlie Manuel before a series at Shea Stadium. Manuel promptly posted the message on the inside door of the clubhouse
"One pitch, one at bat, one play, one situation, think 'small' and 'big' things result, tough at-bats, lots of walks, stay up the middle with men on base, whatever it takes to 'keep the line moving' on offense, 27 outs on defense, the Mets know you're better than they are," Schmidt wrote.
And then, in a poke at the Phils' rivals, he added: "They remember last year. You guys are never out of a game. Welcome the challenge that confronts you this weekend. You are the stars. Good luck."
Given their druthers, the players would rather control their destiny.
"You want it to be in your hands," Nomar Garciaparra said after hitting a big home run for the Dodgers on Tuesday night.
Garciaparra also had a message for his young teammates in their first pennant chase.
"Enjoy it. Don't take it for granted because you may never have this opportunity again. There's a lot of people in this clubhouse that have gone a lot of years and never been in the playoffs," he said.