Heading into the bottom of the ninth after watching a rare blown save, the White Sox and 41,000 of their fans listened to the strains of Journey imploring them to not lose hope. They didn’t. A near-collapse by the team only set the stage for another postseason moment that will be writ large in the history books, as the unlikeliest hero, a man who had no home runs during the regular season, sent the US Cellular Field crowd home happy with his second longbal of October. Scott Podsednik didn’t launch a Pujols-like moonshot, but his 408-foot homer to right-center was enough to give the Sox a roller-coaster win over the Astros and a 2-0 lead in the World Series.
The game was played in a steady downpour, though the field remained in good condition as the hard-working grounds crew quickly dried any sign of puddles. The weather didn’t appear to be a factor in the game. Well, at least for the players. At times, home-plate umpire Jeff Nelson appeared to have a strike zone based on the dropping temperature. Both halves of the first inning ended with the batters as nothing more than observers.
Mark Buehrle worked through his innings quickly, but at times, his pattern appeared too predictable. His control and command occasionally backfired, including a middle-in first-pitch fastball to Morgan Ensberg in the second that ended up over the Sox bullpen in left. The Sox wasted no time in answering, plating two runs with a series of singles and two errors. Second baseman-turned-left fielder Chris Burke misplayed a long fly to the wall, a mistake than was mitigated by indecisive running from Aaron Rowand. That was followed by what should have been an easy popout that bounced off Craig Biggio‘s glove, becoming a force-out at second. Garner should have known that he was sacrificing some defense for offense with his outfield set, but after the game he said “Burke is the best defensive outfielder in the National League.” Hardly, and his play tonight proved it.
Again, punch met counter-punch. The Astros took advantage of a one-out triple that showcased the 80 speed of Willy Taveras, his fast-forward footspeed challenged only by a perfect relay throw from Juan Uribe. Taveras was driven home by a Lance Berkman sacrifice fly, tying the game again. The third and fourth innings looked more like what we expected from a pairing of Buehrle and post-season vet Andy Pettitte.
The Astros finally struck with the offense that led them to this post-season date, with hits by Brad Ausmus and Taveras setting the table for Berkman. Berkman roped a double and, once again, Taveras’ speed played a major part in the game as he went first to home. It was a theme that we’d see again later. Few had noted that even with Podsednik in the opposing dugout, the Astros hold a significant advantage in overall team speed.
Blame Jerome Holtzman for the end of the game. Brad Lidge should have been pitching to Paul Konerko when he launched his grand slam in the seventh inning. Instead, Garner and his game plan kept Lidge in the bullpen and put Chad Qualls on the mound. Konerko called the slam the second-best moment of his week–his child was born on Tuesday. Bobby Jenks was put in the game in the ninth because of a stat rather than because he was the best pitcher available. The Chicago crowd’s reaction to Jenks is already taking on William Perry proportions, including a great sign–“fat man enters, fat lady sings”–and a crowd mimicking Guillen’s “big boy” bullpen call.
Sunday night, Jenks made his pitches, but the Astros got their hits. A Jeff Bagwell single and a walk to Burke put the tying runs on, and a groundout by Ausmus moved them over. With the tying run in scoring position, the best Garner had for the situation was Jose Vizcaino. A Jenks fastball was pushed into left field, and Burke slid in just wide of the throw home, tying the game and sucking much of the juice out of a crowd that was just as raucous as it had been on Saturday despite the rain and cold.
As Jenks left the mound, A.J. Pierzynski turned to Konerko and said “we’ll pick him up. We can’t break his heart,” according to Guillen. Podsednik had wondered earlier in the game “I wonder what that’s like to be Konnie [Konerko], hitting a home run to put us in position to go two up in the World Series. I didn’t feel good all night and he’s got great stuff. I’m just thinking about getting a base hit and he threw the ball right where I was looking. That’s what it takes sometimes and certainly in this case.”
With one out in the bottom of the ninth, and one of the best relievers in baseball on the mound, Scott Podsednik picked up his teammates and the faith of a city. The crowd watched the ball in a state of disbelief as it carried to center, over the head of Taveras and the grey fence. There’s some fan with a very valuable–if somewhat moist–baseball sitting on his dresser at home. The first out of the dugout to congratulate Podsednik, ahead of even the ebullient manager, was very recognizable. Jenks picked Podsednik up with a hug as hard as his heater.
Even with Roy Oswalt coming up to challenge momentum (and Jon Garland) on Tuesday in Houston, the White Sox can now play sub-.500 baseball and still win the Series. Roger Clemens is unlikely to pitch in Game Five, his hamstring full of blood and fluid and short of a bloody sock performance, Phil Garner will be forced to make a decision between using Ezequiel Astacio and bringing Pettitte back on short rest. It’s been a long time since there were World Series games on the south side of Chicago. It might be a long time until another game is played here; the next Sox crowd might be coming for a parade.