ALCS Here We Come!
A little less than 3 weeks ago, when the White Sox dropped 2 of 3 to the red hot Indians in Chicago, thoughts of the biggest regular season choke of all time starting running through my head and how I was going to explain this in an emotional post on this site.
A little less than 2 weeks ago, a complete Indians collapse put the White Sox only needing a win over the lowly Detroit Tigers to lock up the AL Central. As fate would have it, the game was being played at Comerica Park, about a 15 minute drive from where I live, but because it was a day game, I couldn’t make it. Luckily I got home from work just as the 9th inning was starting to watch the White Sox celebrate their first division title in 5 years on FSN Detroit. So the Sox were in, and the Indians were out, but surely they’d get the Wild Card and the White Sox would wind up facing the Yankees or Angels in the Divisional Playoffs.
1 week ago, the unthinkable happened. The White Sox, who were down and out until the last week of the season and with nothing to play for, SWEPT the Indians right out of the playoffs, improbably locking up a playoff spot for and first round match-up with the defending World Series Champions, the Boston Red Sox. All of the sudden the "choker" White Sox, as ESPN was labeling them, were coming into the playoffs riding a 5 game winning streak and winning 8 of their last 10.
At work on Monday and Tuesday, the only thing I could think of was the White Sox-Red Sox match-up. It was definitely more interesting to think of than the Chemistry of Automotive Coatings class I was sitting through. I was also at the same time writing in my mind my obituary article for the Sox. I had a title and everything. I was going to just call it "The 2005 Chicago White Sox: A Tribute." I was planning on focusing on the positives of the season, like player development, surviving without Frank Thomas again, and how they overcame the odds of everyone betting against them, picking the Twins to win the World Series, discussing the Tigers as a serious division contender while not even mentioning the White Sox in an ESPN AL Central preview, etc, and then how at the end of the season when everyone was counting them out again, they tightened up, and not only beat the Indians for the division title, but knocked them out of the Wild Card as well. But then I was going to talk about how beating the Indians might not have been the best plan, because they fell victim to the defending champion Red Sox, in a depressing repeat of the 2000 playoffs....
Things did seem a little different though. I had a small sense of hope in me mostly based on the way the 2000 season ended vs. the way 2005 season ended for the White Sox. In 2000, the Indians were on their way out, and the Twins were one year away from contending, so the White Sox locked up the title much earlier and totally dogged it for the rest of the season. They relied on the explosive hitting of Frank Thomas, Magglio Ordonez, Carlos Lee, Paul Konerko, and Jose Valentin to mash the ball to all corners of Comiskey Park, all while riding on the shaky arms of Jim Parque, Mike Sirotka, James Baldwin, Cal Eldred, and alternating the extremely young Jon Garland and Kip Wells. Does that sound like a playoff worthy rotation to you? This year's edition featured phenomenal performances from Mark Buehrle (who was a rookie out of the bullpen in 2000), Jon Garland (who was a rookie occasional 5th starter in 2000), Freddy Garcia (who was a 2nd year, 5th starter for the team that beat the Sox in 2000), Orlando Hernandez (who was winning his 3rd ring with the Yankees in 2000), and Jose Contreras (who was pitching on the Cuban national team in 2000). This combination of young talent and high pressure playoff experience greatly paid off, and it was all brought together by A.J. Pierzynski, who can hit and handle a pitching staff better than any Sox catcher since Carlton Fisk. Say what you want about AJ, but the season he became the every day catcher for the Twins was also the first time they had a winning season in 9 years, and the worst team he has been the every day starter for in his career was those 2001 Twins, who were 85-77. Also, with the speedy legs of Scott Podsednik, Tadahito Iguchi, Aaron Rowand, and even Jermaine Dye in the lineup, the White Sox became a "small ball" team this year that can kill you with stolen bases and hit and runs. I'm not going to go all the way and call them a a true small ball team though, because they still got plenty of home runs out of Paul Konerko, Jermaine Dye, Carl Everett, and Joe Crede. The added speed dimension is a huge plus because unlike slugging, speed can't go on cold streaks.
With the improved pitching and speed on my mind, the biggest things I was worried about in these playoffs was Boston's superior lineup and history itself.....
Game 1 @ Chicago: Jose Contreras vs. Matt Clement. Jose hadn't been all that impressive since coming over from Cuba, but then in the 2nd half of the season, he became the hottest pitcher in baseball and picked up the slack of a slumping Jon Garland. Sure, the Red Sox had experience with Jose from his time with the Yankees, but the White Sox saw Clement plenty of times during his time with the Cubs. The White Sox came into this game losing an unbelievable 9 straight home playoff games, last winning in Chicago in game 1 of the 1959 World Series, where they crushed the Dodgers 11-0, but went on to lose the World Series. Oh, did I mention the White Sox hadn't won a playoff series since the 1917 World Series? It's the longest streak in baseball, since the Cubs won in the 2003 divisional playoffs to break their 95 year streak. Of course, because of this, the White Sox were heavy underdogs in this series, even though they had the best record in the AL, and because "they always choke in the playoffs" as some people like to say, confusing them with the Cubs. Sure, 2000 was a choke, I'll give them that (even though they lost to a team that won 116 games the next season). But in 1959, 1983, and 1993 they lost to better teams, especially in 1993 when they faced a recharged defending world champion in Toronto. In 1919, they threw the World Series intentionally. So in 7 playoff appearances in their history, I would say they choked once, and they won 2 championships. Like I mentioned before, if you want to talk about chokes, look to the North. The Cubs lost the 1906 World Series to the White Sox after having the best record in baseball history at 116-36. Some team would have to finish 124-38 to better that in this era, but the Cubs gagged and lost to a team that had 23 less wins and a team batting average of .230, last in the then 8-team American League. In 1984, a ball through Leon Durham's legs put the San Diego Padres and their brown, orange, and yellow uniforms in the World Series, and of course, Bartman. But now back to the game. It was one of the most amazing victories I ever saw the Sox get. They took a swift 5-0 lead in the 1st inning after a backbreaking 2 out A.J. Pierzynski HR. Then they just started piling on, adding more homers by Paul Konerko, Juan Uribe, Scott Podsednik (his first of the ENTIRE season!!!!), and finally another by A.J. Pierzynski. Throw in a beautiful job by Contreras, and the result is a 14-2 thrashing of Boston, eerily similar to game 1 of the 1959 World Series. I never saw the White Sox win a game with such authority in a situation like this before. The only way I can compare to how I felt about it was when the 49ers grabbed a huge lead and coasted to victory over the Cowboys in the 1994 NFC Championship game.
Game 2 @ Chicago: Mark Buehrle vs. David Wells. Buehrle came into the game as the Sox ace, but his only playoff experience was recording 1 out in the 9th inning of game 2 of the 2000 ALDS. David Wells is a little over the hill but still dangerous. When he was traded to the White Sox in 2001 for Mike Sirotka, he was a disaster and now when I think about it, I just want to forget the 2001 season ever happened. I really liked this match-up needless to say, but history still kind of worried me, thinking of the way the 1959 World Series turned out and the fact that my parents were going to the game, who also went to game 2 of the 1993 ALCS and 2000 ALDS, both losses. The Red Sox came out strong, jumping to a 4 run lead early on, and it looked like the Sox were on their way back to playoff misery. Things changed in the 5th, however. A double and single by Aaron Rowand and Joe Crede brought home 2 runs (after a key Tony Graffanino error), after a pop out by Podsednik with 2 runners on, it was up to Tadahito Iguchi, the Japanese import at 2nd base, to bring home more runs with 2 outs. This man has only been in America for a few months, and may know nothing about White Sox history or the 88 years of losing, but he spit in the face of any curse as his 3 run homer sailed over the left field wall just past the bullpen, in what may be the most clutch home run in White Sox history. Buehrle tightened up and Jenks closed it down as the Sox won it 5-4 and took a 2 game lead.
Game 3 @ Boston: Freddy Garcia vs. Tim Wakefield. Despite being down 2-0, everyone on TV and in the papers jumped on the Red Sox bandwagon, making ridiculous claims such as the Red Sox "have them right where they want them," because of their comeback to beat Oakland in the 2003 ALDS and their amazing comeback from down 3-0 to beat the Yankees in the 2004 ALCS. The Red Sox, confident that they would be taking game 3, even decided to pitch Wakefield and rest Curt Schilling for another must win game 4. Big Mistake. Podsednik and Iguchi gave the White Sox a quick 2-0 lead, but Boston matched it in the next inning with long solo homers by David Ortiz and Manny Ramirez, the team's first of the series. Chicago took a 4-2 lead in the top of the 6th with a key Paul Konerko 2-run shot, which bounced Wakefield from the game. The bottom of the 6th was yet another defining moment for the White Sox. After giving up a leadoff homer to Manny Ramirez, Garcia was pulled. Damaso Marte immediately came in and gave up a hit to Trot Nixon, and then walked Bill Mueller and John Olerud. So the Sox were up by 1, bases loaded, 0 outs. Ozzie decides to bring in Boston's old nemesis, El Duque Orlando Hernandez to stop the bleeding. In maybe the most clutch pitching performance in the majors this year, he got pinch hitter Jason Varitek to pop out, Game 2 goat Tony Graffanino to pop out, and Johnny Damon to strike out on a check swing to get out of the biggest jam possible without giving up a single run. El Duque went on to pitch beautifully in the 7th and 8th, the Sox added an insurance run in the 9th on a suicide squeeze, and Bobby Jenks laid them down 1-2-3 in the 9th to give the Sox their first playoff series win since 1917 and first trip to the ALCS since 1993! Ironically, Edgar Renteria, who made the last out for the Cardinals last season the break Boston's curse made the last out for Boston this season against the White Sox.
So where do we go from here? I don't really know. I never expected the Sox to actually win a playoff series. Now that they took out the 2004 AL Champs, they'll face either the 1998, 1999, 2000, 2001, and 2003 AL Champ Yankees or the 2002 AL Champ Angels in the ALCS. Yep, the 3 teams besides the Sox in the playoffs this year have combined to win the last 7 AL titles. Imagine if the Sox would have choked and the Indians would have gotten in instead...it would be the last 10 AL Champs. My policy all season for the Sox was to not even think of a playoff match-up until it happens, so as of right now I don't really care who they end up facing. No matter what happens from here, the Sox at the very least got the playoff series monkey off their backs. I feel like they're playing with the house's money, but unlike gambling, the worst you can do is break even by losing.
My favorite part about the White Sox beating Boston is that all the Boston crap will hopefully end now. I and probably the rest of America are sooooo sick of them. I was definitely behind them in the playoffs last year, mostly because people would stop crying about their stupid "Curse of the Bambino," but the extreme arrogance from their whiney fans (let's not forget they have 3 of the last 4 Super Bowls and 16 NBA Championships) has really turned me off to them. Now they're just another team with a ridiculous payroll. They really aren't any different than the Yankees. Kevin asked me if the Sox were allowed to spray champagne on the Fenway Park field, and I said sure, but while they're at it they should all take turns peeing on the Green Monster. In a lot of ways I'd kind of like to see the Yankees make it to the ALCS because if the Sox end up losing to them, it will further add to Boston's misery. So to Peter Gammons, John Kruk, Harold Reynolds, Chris Berman, and all the other Boston lovers/Chicago haters in that Boston-New York propaganda bunker over in Bristol, CT, I just want to remind you all again that your beloved BoSox are FINISHED at the hands of a team you didn't even mention in your AL Central Preview or your 50 in 50 stop in Illinois....maybe its time to take notice of teams that actually play west of the Appalachians for a change. The Sox come into the ALCS rested with an 8 game winning streak and winners of 11 of the last 13. Bring on the next challenger! - Steve
[Edit: I had Bill Simmons listed above and on the picture on the right, but his follow up article on the series was very respectful and I really can't stay mad at my favorite sports writer. Also, unlike the talking heads and obviously biased play by play announcers broadcasting in a supposedly unbiased national TV situation, that will bash a team all season only to jump on their bandwagon at the end to make themselves seem smart (cough Baseball Tonight crew), Simmons is indeed the "Boston Sports Guy" and basically makes his money off writing about his favorite Boston teams in very entertaining ways, so he has every right to be biased, and shouldn't be expected to "call it down the middle" as his TV counterparts should be, since that is how the broadcasts are presented (Baseball Tonight, not Boston Love Fest Tonight)]