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October 24, 2005
An Unlikely Hero
For some games, you just have to work backwards…
One of the reasons the Brewers were happy to deal Scott Podsednik to the White Sox was their perception of the player's infatuation with his power stroke in 2004. Not that they weren't getting the better end of the deal for Carlos Lee, but they saw his 70-point drop in batting average as tied to Podsednik's desire to hit home runs. In fact, Podsednik's strikeout rate, isolated power and groundball-to-flyball ratio were all roughly the same in '04 as they'd been in his .314/.379/.443 2003. The difference between the two seasons was all in his batting average, which can fluctuate, even for hitters.
When he got to Chicago, however, Podsednik turned into a slap hitter, knocking just 29 extra-base hits and pushing his GB/FB over 2.00 for the first time in his career. This approach helped him regain some lost OBP, largely through a higher batting average, although the package still wasn't as valuable as the 2003 edition.
Fortunately for the Sox, he didn't forget how to turn it loose. Last night, Podsednik became one of the most unlikely players to ever hit a game-winning home run in the World Series, going yard off of the suddenly-vulnerable Brad Lidge to give the White Sox a 7-6 win, and a 2-0 lead in the World Series. It wasn't a dink shot, either, but a 400-foot blast to center field. He's now yanked two balls in two nights that have gone further than anything he hit during the entire regular season.
The timing couldn't have been better for Podsednik, whose weak arm had been exploited by the Astros just minutes earlier to tie the game. Jose Vizcaino's slap single to left off of Bobby Jenks scored two runs, the latter of which had only been rounding third when Podsednik fielded the ball. Had the throw home been either strong or accurate, the game would have ended there, but the weak toss was up the first-base line slightly, and allowed Chris Burke to score.
The hit by Vizcaino stole the show from Paul Konerko, whose seventh-inning grand slam had turned a two-run deficit into a two-run lead. Konerko hit a first-pitch cookie from Chad Qualls, who you could argue was only in the game because 35 years ago, a scoring rule was invented to credit relief pitchers who got the last out in wins. With the bases loaded, a two-run lead and the other team's best hitter up, you would think you'd want your best reliever in the game. Phil Garner--who'd used Lidge to get out of a similar seventh-inning jam in the 2004 Division Series--went with his third-best reliever, and paid the price.
I recognize that using your closer in the seventh inning is a highly unusual tactic, and with other effective relievers at his disposal, perhaps doing so would be too much to expect of Garner. But when you consider the leverage of the situation--not just the game, but how important this batter was to the World Series--it's hard for me to not see this as yet another example of how the save rule has corrupted bullpen usage. From the dawn of the use of relief pitchers as weapons through the mid-1980s, a team would have used their best reliever to pitch in that situation. They had it right, and we, in modern baseball, have it wrong.
Then again, maybe Konerko shouldn't have even been batting. After all, the 5-1 pitch to Jermaine Dye--who swung at balls four and five in this at-bat--didn't actually hit him, but rather, hit his bat, or so it appeared after frequent replays. Unlike some of the calls in the League Championship Series, this is one on which an error is understandable, even forgivable. It's a call made by sound, and one on which mistakes are often made. Jeff Nelson appeared to get it wrong, but even blown-up replays weren't enough to discern what had actually happened.
The White Sox' rally in the seventh was necessitated by the Astros' two runs in the fifth, runs that, to me, showed just how thin the line is between winning and losing an individual baseball game. The three hits the Astros got in the fifth all either hit or got within inches of Joe Crede's glove. Crede had made two strong plays in Game One to snuff rallies, but tonight, those hard-hit balls were getting past him, and putting runs on the board. He was the same defender Sunday that he'd been one night before, but on one night his skills were enough, on the next they weren't. That's baseball, and it's why you can't put too much weight on short-term results.
That the game was even tied in the fifth was due to some intrepid baserunning on the part of both teams. Willy Taveras continued his great postseason by stretching a double into a triple in the third, enabling him to score on Lance Berkman's sac fly, a run that tied the game. The White Sox had taken a 2-1 lead in the second thanks in part to A.J. Pierzynski going first to third on a single, the second time in two nights he'd done so. "Smallball" image aside, the White Sox don't have great team speed, and their aggressiveness on the bases can be costly. So far in this series, though, we've only seen the good side of their baserunning, and it's paid off.
Then again, the game wasn't without mistakes. Pierzynski had reached on a fly ball off the wall in left, a ball that should have been a double. Aaron Rowand misread the play and was headed back to first base when the ball hit the wall. He was only able to reach second. While I'd like to see more players tag from first to second on deep fly balls, in this case, Rowand erred in his read of the depth of the ball and, perhaps, forgot that Chris Burke is an inexperienced left fielder. Regardless, it was a mistake, although the Sox didn't lose any runs that inning because of it, and took a 2-1 lead.
The Astros had opened the scoring in the top of the frame on a Morgan Ensberg home run on the first pitch from Mark Buehrle. Note to Fox: we all know it's important to plug "Prison Break" 527 times a night, but could you maybe trim three seconds off of the clip so that the people who are trying to watch baseball don't miss very important moments? Thanks.
The game featured three lead changes, two ties and a couple of the most dramatic home runs you'll ever see in October. If I was concerned that two pitching-heavy teams might not be able to provide drama in their matchup, the first two nights of this World Series have killed that notion. The Astros may have their backs up against the wall, but they also have Roy Oswalt, who is their best pitcher right now, and they are going back to a place where they've won eight straight postseason games.
This season isn't over yet, but the White Sox are in a place that few people, and certainly not I, thought they'd be for most of the year: two wins from a title.