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October 6, 2008

Playoff Diary

ALDS Game Three, Rays versus Sox

by Christina Kahrl

Forgive me a second, as I doff the analyst's cap. As is, I lack the gifts of a Silver or a Sheehan, or a Davenport, Fox, or Woolner. Instead, bear with me as I simply go over a trip to the ballpark yesterday. One that just happened to be in an October, and one that just happened to be in my favorite place, Chicago.

In a long life as a fan and a somewhat shorter career as a writer, there are many things I've done, but many things I still had yet to do. While I have caught a foul ball (promptly handed off to the nearest kiddo), and made the trek to the Cactus League a couple of times for spring training, I haven't seen a no-hitter in the flesh, for example. Obviously, some things are not like others—random luck can put you in the right seat and/or at the right ballgame, while time and/or money can put you in Phoenix in February or March, or at a playoff game in October. Even so, I had yet to experience a post-season ballgame in the flesh. That changed yesterday, courtesy of the White Sox, as the always-crisp crew of Scott Reifert in Communications and Media Relations played host to the Fourth Estate for Game Three of their ALDS, and generously made space for Nate Silver, Kevin Goldstein, and myself among the ranks of the chattering classes.

Thus generously privileged, there was no place I would rather have been. While not a Sox fan, Old Comiskey and now the Cell have been the parks I've seen more games in than any other, as a young college kid, then as a not-so-young ex-smart person, and eventually as a baseball writer and analyst. While I've had no real investment in the outcomes where the Sox are concerned, I've nevertheless always had a much more active sense of sympathy for Sox fans than I could ever extend to Cubs fans, because as an A's fan originally from Northern California, there's a certain grating similarity in the lazy belovedness of the resident senior circuit squad in both places, something fostered in the local media, and something that reliably seems to transcend performance. Whether you want to chalk that up to Wrigley's critical importance as the public edifice of the Midwest's lakeside Riviera, or the relative difference between a columnist getting to meet Willie Mays and Charlie Finley back in the day, who's to say why these things happen? Regardless, if Sox fans feel aggrieved for their team's unfair status as the second team in the Second City, on some level I've always liked to feel I understood it, and could similarly enjoy the fact that their guys, like mine in my own lifetime, have a forever-flying flag to brag about. In light of current events, with the Cubs dispatched so easily (again), and with the Sox down two games, the Sox were on the spot to make the case—again—that there's something that sets them apart.

After a full morning (running with the dog, then working on the day's slate of content), I trekked down to the ball field from Rogers Park, taking in the view of the lake from Lake Shore Drive, enjoying the churn and the Turner-sketched skies and the real sense that, as you should feel with October action to see, it's fall. I made the impulsive decision to turn off at Oakwood and see what the neighborhood was like these days. When I'd arrived in Chicago in '85, that was a neighborhood ruled by the El Rukns, and not really the sort of neighborhood you'd want to get lost in on your way to the park. My curiosity was satisfied moving up Martin Luther King Drive to 31st to get to the stadium's parking—it's a blend, with the now-ubiquitous neo-Prairie townhouses you find everywhere in Chicago closest to the lake, slowly mottled by crumbling brownstones and rowhouses that I associate with my years on the South Side (not just Bronzeville) before suddenly switching back again to faux arts architectural stylings around IIT and the ballpark. A Starbucks east of the ballpark? There seems no surer sign of the times.

I was pulling in as the afternoon's desultory drizzle delayed the action; Kevin, his own trek from corn country completed, walked right past as I switched off the car. Popping my head out the door proved pointless, so he was ahead of me all the way along the line. Rain or no, fans were milling around in their thousands; with a "blackout" called for, almost to a man, woman, or child they were dressed in black. Again, it's not something I can envision if the clock was turned back and the Sox were in their "Winning Ugly"-era unis, or the curly-cued 'C' red-white-and-blue uniform of the Fregosi/Torborg era. While I'm as nostalgic for the past as most, as merchandising and fashions go, I'm reminded this is still a winning break with the past. As much as you can generalize, folks seemed anxious, although that can be about milling around in the rain as much as anything else.

So I make my way upstairs to "Auxiliary Press Room A," which turns out to be close to the left-field foul pole, just below the upper deck, and just above the 300-level mezzanine seats. While the view of the scoreboard's obstructed, and home plate's a bit of a ways away, it's a seat and it's at a game, and what could be better? Having had vantage points all around this park over the years, I'm struck again by how much the improvements made to the place over the last three seasons have made such a remarkable difference. It isn't Wrigley, but it doesn't have to be, and while I miss the old place, I don't hate the new. I park myself next to Kevin, the rains slowly subside and we're eventually told the game will start 40 minutes late, and Nate pulls in as well, chuckling over news of his Monday departure to the Big Apple to make an appearance on the Colbert Report. We talk about politics and music and baseball interchangeably, although music invariably winds up with Kevin telling me my tastes are terrible, and my retorting that in the case of bands like Blur, he's just not going to make a sale as far as bringing me around to his way of thinking.

Eventually, pre-game ceremonies cease, and John Danks and A.J. Pierzynski walk out of the Sox pen at an easy, confident, slow pace. This inspires a conversation about Lee Smith, and zagging where we've been zigging, I ask Kevin if Craig Lefferts—a pitching coach for the Vancouver Canadians, Oakland's short-season A-ball affiliate—sprints out to the mound nowadays with the same alacrity he always did as a pitcher. Kevin admits to not knowing this one thing related to the minor leagues.

Danks starts off throwing a little harder than usual; his fastball's usually in the low 90s, but he's a tick or two above that today. He also doesn't try to get cute, not even mixing in his cutter or almost anything that breaks. He runs into a quick problem with runners on first and third and one out, but when early series hero Evan Longoria lofts a second-pitch mid-distance fly to right, it has no real chance of scoring Iwamura from third, and a first-pitch tapper back to the mound scotches the threat. The crowd, initially frightened, rallies fast. Armed at the gates with corporately-gifted towels, a full house in black with white towels waving brings another echo of '87 beyond Longoria's repeating Gary Gaetti's double-bomb debut in his first pair of plate appearances—there's no need for a Fan-O-Meter today to get a rise from the crowd. Despite a well-hit double by Dioner Navarro in the second, Danks doesn't get hit that hard, surrendering a run on an infield single to Iwamura when he and Paul Konerko can't work out a 3-1 putout. A first-pitch passed ball puts two runners in scoring position, but he gets B.J. Upton on a high, arcing fly to Dewayne Wise. Despite the early trouble, he'd cruise through the next four innings, allowing only two baserunners, and seemingly keeping things simple, pounding the zone with fastballs, only occasionally putting people away with a change.

If Danks was working his way in and out of trouble, Garza initially looked pretty tough, with his heat getting clocked in the high 90s. The Sox tie things up in the third with a few fortunate breaks: a leadoff walk by Wise almost goes for naught when Juan Uribe's liner to Pena leads to a quick dive by Wise that beats Pena's stomp on the bag. An Orlando Cabrera strikeout later, Ozzie decides to roll the dice in a two-out situation, with Wise swiping second on a 1-and-2 pitch to Pierzynski. It's a good choice, especially considering the count and the likelihood that the inning isn't going anywhere. Pierzynski lines the next pitch to center—and not for the first time, Upton sort of clumsily corrals the ball while Wise motors home.

That nicely-timed bit of generally extinct Ozzieball prefigured the Sox's big inning in the fourth. Jim Thome's booming double to the deep left-center alley gets us to kibitzing over Chicago's lack of speed. Konerko's subsequent walk and a Ken Griffey Jr. single can't help but load the bases—this is the station-to-station part of the program. Alexei Ramirez's drive to center plates Thome but even more surprisingly moves up both Konerko and Griffey, which proves critical when Wise jerks an opposite-field double down the left-field line to score them both. While the Rays would subsequently squelch the Sox's fifth-inning scoring bid by getting Konerko to hit into a double-play grounder with Pierzynski and Thome aboard, this bit of base-running execution in the fourth or the Rays' failure to keep the two slow runners close is as good a candidate for the play of the game as any, given the upshot of the outcome. Even though Garza's cooking with gas, his workmanlike performance seems less so next to Danks's.

A tacked-on run in the sixth is another matter of execution or Ozzieball, as you like it—no sooner have I asked Kevin if he'd pull Griffey after a leadoff walk and pinch-run with Brian Anderson now, recognizing that there's a decent chance the sixth slot will come up with men aboard in the seventh, than the Sox skipper does exactly that. Anderson promptly swipes a bag before Ramirez grounds a ball to Longoria that the rookie makes a brilliant Ken Caminiti-style back-handed stop of crossing into foul ground before firing to first. Kevin kibitzes that I should put a star or smiley face on my scorecard, but in my short-hand for such things, I favor the exclamation point; Anderson focuses on taking third base on the play, another smart bit of baserunning. A Wise first-pitch chopper to Pena at first doesn't bode well—the slick-fielding first baseman checks Anderson, and with Uribe up, it's easy to anticipate that Garza's going to be able to overpower the free swinger. Except that perhaps again as a matter of execution, Garza gives the always pull-happy Uribe something to pull, and an improbable fifth run's been scored.

Down by four, the Rays rally with a pair of runs of their own in the seventh. No sooner do I kid Kevin that Danks has reached his "Danny Cox number"—his hundredth pitch, another echo of the '87 postseason, when the Cardinals' starter seemed to spontaneously combust reaching that mark—than Danks gives up runs on his 101st pitch. Incredible talent can deliver incredibly talented things, and Upton completely crushes a two-out, two-run shot to deep left off of Danks that takes a bit of wind out of the Sox fans' sails. A Pena single later, and we all draw a line on what Kevin terms the definitive "yeoman's start" from the South Side's southpaw. Octavio Dotel and Matt Thornton have both been warming since the sixth, so Ozzie swaps in the righty to go after Longoria. It "works," in that a called strikeout ends the threat, but the call on the 2-and-2 pitch leaves us shaking our heads. One neighboring scribe promptly suggests that this was the play of the game, but as much as you can pick any one thing, I'm still pondering the baserunning or Uribe's clutch single.

After six innings and five runs, Maddon hooks Garza, putting in Trever Miller to get Pierzynski. The notoriously pesty Pierzynski walks, leading to another hook as Maddon puts Chad Bradford in against Dye with Jim Thome on deck. I'm wondering if this won't be another one-batter appearance when Bradford induces a double-play grounder; with two outs and nobody aboard, why not let the side-armer face Thome with Konerko on deck. When, I wonder aloud, was the last time before this series that the situational right-hander had ever had to face Thome; long after the action ends, I learn they've seen each other all of twice, the last time in 2001. Proving that while obsessing over situational matchups has its place, this isn't one of them, Bradford gets Thome out for a second time in two games; style points to Maddon.

With Thornton already warmed up, Guillen sensibly turns to him for the eighth. Better to use him against guys like Aybar and Baldelli and go against platoon considerations than leave Dotel out there or bring in another right-hander, and thereby invite Maddon to use one of his legion of lefty bats on the bench, Eric Hinske or Gabe Gross or Cliff Floyd. It's a small thing, but it keeps Maddon from being able to really get creative.

With the score still 5-3 in the ninth and Bobby Jenks in to close, however, I'm left wondering why Joe Maddon doesn't now go to one of those three. He burns Gross by swapping him in for Baldelli, who ended the eighth, but with Jason Bartlett's at-bat, and nobody else you'd pull due up unless you get to Aybar, seven at-bats away... if that isn't cause for calling for one of Floyd or Hinske, at what point will you ever call for any of them? A six-man bench is a great thing to carry in the postseason, but it isn't something you carry as a deterrent, it's something you use. Bartlett pops to short, and the Rays are down to their last two outs against the Human Barrel in front of 40,000 towel-waving hollering happy maniacs. If you're this afraid of winding up with Ben Zobrist at short in a post-season game, the Rays may well have to re-think how they design their roster for the next round should they advance. With his penchant for drama, Jenks gives up a sharply-lined two-out single to Upton that puts Pena on the spot, but after 13 straight mid- to high-90s fastballs, Jenks gets a called third strike on his first wiggly curve, and just like that, we've got a Game Four to look forward to.

Thanks to Caleb Peiffer for his research assistance.

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

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