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October 5, 2005

Prospectus Game of the Week

Boston Red Sox @ Chicago White Sox, 10/04/05

by Jonah Keri

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Welcome to the first installment of Playoff Game of the Week. It's a GotW rematch of the team I picked to win the World Series, against the team I couldn't get myself to believe in, even as they clinched a division title and the best record in the American League.

But while the Chicago White Sox face the same question marks about their lack of left-handed pop, the Boston Red Sox have question marks in their starting rotation, their bullpen, and multiple spots in their order not occupied by David Ortiz and Manny Ramirez. With neither team an odds-on bet to advance, the statement I made five days ago stands: "Sox fans could be in for a wild scenario: Their chance at the first World Series in 88 years could rest in the right hand of Jose Contreras." The only difference is now you can make that statement about both Sox.

Red Sox
CF Johnny Damon
SS Edgar Renteria
DH David Ortiz
LF Manny Ramirez
RF Trot Nixon
C Jason Varitek
1B Kevin Millar
3B Bill Mueller
2B Tony Graffanino

Edgar Renteria and Kevin Millar have become shadows of their former selves, everyday players who hurt Boston's offense. Unlike last year when the Sox had multiple platoon/spot-start options and no big weaknesses in the lineup, this year's squad lacks both that same depth and the one-through-nine fear-inducers that propelled Boston to its first World Series in 86 years. The Red Sox will need Ortiz and Ramirez to come up big; beyond those two, this lineup faces just as many potential matchup problems as the Pale Hose do, if not more.

What's amazing is that Contreras is the man the White Sox send out to try and exploit those weaknesses. After going 9-0 in his last nine regular-season starts, Ozzie Guillen tapped him over Cy Young candidate Jon Garland and co-aces Mark Buehrle and Freddy Garcia. The M.O. for Contreras is simple: Get ahead of Boston's patient hitters early, then go to his splitter--one of the best pitches thrown by any starter in the majors when it's on--late in the count. You get the sense that Boston will either light him like a pinata or get dominated.

After a Damon lineout to start the first, Renteria dumps a blooper just fair down the right-field line, stretching it into a double only when Juan Uribe drops Jermaine Dye's on-time throw. Right away it's Contreras vs. Ortiz and Ramirez, the battle that could decide the series. Contreras' pitch sequence to Ortiz:

  1. 96-mph fastball low, ball one
  2. fadeaway 80-mph slider, just outside, great take by Ortiz, ball two
  3. 92-mph fastball down the heart of the plate, gimme strike; ESPN play-by-play man Chris Berman: "Part of the strategy is even they respect Contreras and what he's done, maybe build up the pitch count." Having your best hitter keep his bat on his shoulder on a 2-0, thigh-high batting practice fastball down the middle isn't going to make the opposing pitcher tired enough to justify the opportunity lost
  4. 94-mph way inside, ball three
  5. 94-mph fastball, outside edge, huge swing and miss, strike two
  6. drop-off-the-table splitter in the dirt, Ortiz misses it by a foot, strike three

Ramirez then grounds out to Joe Crede on the first pitch.

The White Sox have a real shot at this.

White Sox
LF Scott Podsednik
2B Tadahito Iguchi
RF Jermaine Dye
1B Paul Konerko
DH Carl Everett
CF Aaron Rowand
C A.J. Pierzynski
3B Joe Crede
SS Juan Uribe

If there's one thing I've learned covering the minutiae of a game a week for a whole season, it's this: Most major-league clubs try at least one horribly ill-advised bunt a game. And as was the case in last week's White Sox/Tigers tilt, when Uribe laid one down for no good reason, that bunt has usually ended up not hurting the bunter's team in the final analysis. All season long, Ozzie Guillen had been preaching a nebulous brand of baseball known as "SmartBall"--which apparently involves frequent stolen-base attempts despite a poor 67% success rate, as well as giving up outs to advance runners, despite playing in one of the most home run-friendly parks in the game.

Podsednik reaches on a hit-by-pitch, setting the table for Iguchi. Would Guillen dare bunt with Iguchi (third on the club in OPS) with a team ranked fifth in the majors in homers, in the first inning, in a game against the team that's led the majors in runs scored the last three years in a row?

You bet he would, it's SmartBall! Rick Sutcliffe, to his credit, notes that the White Sox may not want to risk having Podsednik get thrown out trying to steal, a problem that got worse down the stretch. It doesn't justify the bunt, but it's the lesser of those two evils, in any case. Clement then hits Dye on a 1-2 inside fastball, after Jason Varitek set up outside. Clement could be in trouble if he loses his command. A Podsednik first-pitch steal with Paul Konerko up--either he has a permanent green light or Guillen's trying to blow our minds--puts runners at the corners with one out. Konerko crushes a 2-1 fastball just foul down the left-field line. He then grounds into a 5-4 forceout, cashing Podsednik to take a 1-0 lead.

Clement grooves a fastball to Carl Everett, putting two on with two out. Clement falls behind Aaron Rowand 2-0, sending pitching coach Dave Wallace to the mound. After working the count full, Rowand bloops a slider over Renteria's head, making it 2-0 White Sox.

Clement jumps ahead 0-1 on A.J. Pierzynski. But rather than take advantage of the count, Clement lays another fastball down the meat of the plate. Pierzynski jacks it over the wall in left-center--5-0 White Sox. Imagine if Iguchi had reached instead of bunting, too.

The big early lead is a godsend for Contreras. With the cushion at his disposal he keeps it simple, using mostly his fastball/splitter combination, throwing strikes and getting through the second and third without allowing a run. Meanwhile the White Sox widen their lead in the third, as back-to-back 40-homer man Konerko lines one for a 6-0 lead. Clement, already under fire, gets a wicked liner up the box; he makes a great play in throwing out Everett, but it's clearly not his night.

The Red Sox fight back in the fourth. Trot Nixon leads off with a single to right, his second straight hit, the third straight inning the Red Sox have put the leadoff man on, and the fourth straight inning they've put at least one man on. Jason Varitek follows with a shocker bunt single, catching Crede so far off guard that he boots the ball all the way behind home plate, putting runners at second and third with no one out. On 0-2, Contreras goes to the splitter in the dirt. The ball gets away from Pierzynski, scoring the Red Sox's first run. Still, the six-run lead affords Contreras the luxury of throwing his A-pitch in that spot, knowing one run won't hurt him much. A few more would, though--Millar lashes a double to right, cutting the lead to 6-2.

Bill Mueller slams a hard one-hopper to Iguchi at second. Incredibly--up four, with a long throw across the diamond needed--Iguchi turns and fires to third. A deft scoop out of the dirt by Crede nails Millar. It's another ill-advised decision, but again, the White Sox get away with it thanks largely to their opponent's shortcomings--in this case, Millar's lack of speed. Tony Graffanino hits into a force, Damon strikes out on three pitches (the last another nasty splitter), and the White Sox escape the biggest threat they'll face all game.

Pierzynski, who'll go 3-for-3 for the game with two homers and a HBP, smacks a leadoff double to right in the bottom of the 4th. After a Crede flyout, Clement serves up an 89-mph meatball, on an 0-2 count to boot. Uribe makes no mistake, blasting it out for a two-run shot to make it 8-2. The ultimate insult for the Red Sox comes in the 6th. Down 9-2, Jeremi Gonzalez tries to sneak a 1-1 fastball by Podsednik. Instead the White Sox's punchless left fielder, whose homerless season was historic by modern standards, ripped the down-and-in pitch for a three-run homer. The White Sox never look back, notching a bit of history as a team--their first home post-season win since Game 1 of the World Series in 1959. Final score: A 14-2 rout, Richard Seymour's hit on Kyle Orton in the end zone the only scoring Boston musters all day.

As the teams prepare for Game Two later today (Buehrle vs. David Wells), the White Sox can take heart, knowing that doing the wrong thing--not the five homers they crushed off Boston pitching, or Contreras' strong 7 2/3 IP, 2 R performance--was the key to winning the game. Just listen to these post-game ruminations:

A.J. Pierzynski: "The biggest thing was Podsednik getting on in the 1st inning, Iguchi getting him over, him getting on third for Paulie. And then things kind of took off from there."

Rick Sutcliffe: "We always talk about a manager only managing when he has to. In the first inning, Podsednik at first, nobody out, Ozzie Guillen put on a sacrifice bunt, it led to a big inning."

You can put it on the boooard...huh?!

Jonah Keri is an author of Baseball Prospectus. 
Click here to see Jonah's other articles. You can contact Jonah by clicking here

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