The White Sox and Astros in the World Series? Just a few months ago, that would have sounded about as likely as a pre-game hailstorm before Game One or Liz Phair performing an acoustic “God Bless America” during the seventh-inning stretch. It came to be on Saturday night, though. From the first pitch and well before, the vehement South Side crowd was on their feet, their electricity seeming to flow down to the emotional team on the field. Each man, woman and child seemed to have a favorite player’s name on their back and their heart on their sleeve. There was no section for jaded fans or doubters; it seemed more like 41,000 echoes of Hawk Harrelson than a crowd.
The Astros hung their early hopes on two men who came to the park hurting. Roger Clemens showed from the first pitch that he didn’t have his best stuff, the drop in his drop-and-drive motion more pronounced. Clemens needed 54 pitches to get through his two innings, an outing capped by a 12-pitch battle with Scott Podsednik. His stuff was off and his command of the strike zone had been left on the flight from Houston. Clemens has a strained left hamstring and is questionable for his scheduled Game Five start.
Jeff Bagwell also had nothing, DHing on guts. His face showed pain with every swing, and he resorted to a dipping uppercut in an effort to use his legs–still strong at 37–to drive the ball out of the park. His best weapon was a move of his trademark wide stance to nearly on top of the plate. Two HBPs resulted, proving that Bagwell would do nearly anything to win a ring.
Astros pitchers struggled to find the strike zone, and when they did, the Sox hit the ball hard. Jermaine Dye, one of the best value signings of the offseason, took a Clemens pitch into the right-field seats in the first inning, igniting the crowd. Over and over, Garner’s Astros would sneak away, racking up pitches while keeping the crooked numbers off the board.
From the same mound, Jose Contreras was efficient and effective, throwing all his pitches for strikes. The reason Ozzie Guillen can ride his pitchers so deep is their efficiency. Contreras put on a clinic, a Buehrle-esque 11 pitches per inning. Contreras seemed in control from the first pitch despite the kind of cold night that he never had to endure in tropical Cuba.
In the third, Phil Garner made his first strange choice of the game, bringing in Wandy Rodriguez to replace Clemens. “The only reason I bring in Wandy Rodriguez is to face A.J. Pierzynski or Scott Podsednik,” said Baseball America‘s Jim Callis, “and then only if Jason Lane is tired.” (Lane was a pitcher for USC in the 1998 College World Series.) Rodriguez was in one jam after another, escaping only through a Mulderian penchant for generating double plays. Rodriguez allowed nine baserunners in his 3 1/3 innings, yet gave up only one run thanks to the pitcher’s best friend. More tellingly, had Rodriguez lasted through his final inning, he likely would have had a higher pitch count at the end of six than Contreras did, despite being spotted two innings.
The White Sox shined on defense, most spectacularly on two plays by Joe Crede, who has an 11 FRAA this season. Crede twice dove to his right and popped up with a cannon shot to first for key outs, saving runs for his team and pitches for Contreras. “There was a situation right there where they were trying to drive a run in. I was just fortunate to get to it and make the play,” Crede said after the game about his seventh-inning snag. His 1-for-4 performance at the plate was more impressive than it seems in the box score as well, making him perhaps the key player on the field for the Sox.
One of the odder plays of the game came later in the seventh inning. With Dye on first, Chad Qualls caught him off the bag and had Dye dead in his tracks. Qualls made the smart play at first, running directly at Dye, but he then threw too soon to Craig Biggio covering second, allowing Dye to scurry back to first, eluding a Mike Lamb tag with a nice dive. The Astros were making mistake after mistake, perhaps staring up at the large black “Fundamentals” sign in left field and wondering at its meaning. Still, they entered the eighth only one run down.
The Astros once again threatened in the eighth, getting a leadoff double by Willy Taveras that sent Guillen to the mound. The streak of complete games (43 straight innings from the starters) died quietly, Guillen managing to the situation rather than the media guide. Contreras at 82 pitches didn’t have the stuff that Neal Cotts would at zero. The lefty was nearly perfect, giving up a single to Lance Berkman that moved Taveras to third before striking out Morgan Ensberg and Mike Lamb. As Guillen went to the mound for the second time, making his special “big boy” sign for Bobby Jenks, Garner made another inexplicable move, pulling Berkman for a pinch runner. Bagwell came to the plate, perhaps a bit reminiscent of Kirk Gibson vs. Dennis Eckersley in 1988, but it was not to be. Jenks made the whole situation moot, mowing down Bagwell with pure heat that a younger, healthier Bagwell could have done something with…maybe.
After a Podsednik triple drove in Juan Uribe to provide some breathing room, all that was left was for Jenks to close out the game. A strikeout, a weak grounder, and then a final strikeout put the game on the board for the Sox, an emotional win in the first game of this series. The end of the game was all explosions–the crowd, the scoreboard, and Bobby Jenks’ fastball. We’ll see if there are more fireworks in Game Two.