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Wednesday, July 17

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Airbags

Sox in Five
by Steve Gozdecki

What, you thought that the high point of this White Sox season was the mere act of clinching the AL Central? Nope. Things just keep getting better, what with the Sox sweep over the Cleveland Indians last weekend denying the late-charging Indians a place in the post-season, followed by the quick jump to a two-games-to-zilch lead in the divisional series match-up against the Boston Red Sox. But before I get too far ahead of myself, let's slow things down a bit and work our way through Sox in Five.

One: Swing and a Loooong Poke
Corny, but true: Every time he wants the White Sox to hit a homer, my father yells, "Swing and a looooong poke!" And through the first two games of this series, the Sox have obeyed his command, slugging five dingers in Game 1 and another one in Game 2. While Paul Konerko's shot in the first game was no big surprise, the pair from a slumping A.J. Pierzynski were — as was Scott Podsednik's jack after he spent the year concentrating on slapping and poking the ball to get on base, finishing the regular season sans a single homer. Even more delicious was Tadahito Iguchi's home run Wednesday night off Jackass David Wells. Iguchi, who purportedly struggles against breaking stuff despite coming from the curveball-crazy Japanese league, prepared for the game by taking a few rounds of batting practice against the Sox's rarely used curveball pitching machine. Wells made Iguchi look bad on a called-strike curve to even the count at 1-1 in the fifth inning, then went back to the well one time too often, hanging one that Iguchi sent into the leftfield seats for a three-run homer that put the good guys ahead 5-4.

Two: BoSox Power Outage
While the "small ball" (ha!) White Sox have been hitting home runs all over the place in this series, the Red Sox left their power stroke back in Boston, failing to clear the fences even once at the homer-friendly U.S. Cellular Field. While the BoSox hit 196 dingers during the season (three fewer than the White Sox), nearly half of this big fly power is concentrated in the hands and wrists and biceps and hips of David Ortiz and Manny Ramirez, who have been relatively quiet through the first two games. Seeing Ortiz take a downright Podsednik-esque opposite-field hack at the ball in the third inning was a big surprise; that he turned it up on the bases and stretched it into a double against Podsednik's pop gun of an arm suggested that the Beantown boys knew they would have to scratch and fight for every base even with a lead in the game. If Freddy Garcia can keep the Big Two in check tonight, we could well see a White Sox sweep.

Three: Jenks Ain't Junk
White Sox pitching? Outstanding. The starting staff for the playoffs features a quartet of pitchers who post very similar numbers — ERAs in the 3s, WHIPS around 1.20, decent-but-not-overpowering K numbers, six to seven innings per start — despite very different pitching approaches and stuff. The team also boasts a core of relievers who've been fairly reliable all season, including Neal Cotts, sometime-closer Dustin Hermanson and Cliff Politte, supplemented by the occasionally cringe-worthy Damaso Marte and Luis Vizcaino. But this club's semi-secret weapon is one Bobby "Spud" Jenks, who resembles a grown-up version of cartoon hero Bobby Hill of King of the Hill fame, albeit with a far rougher and tougher disposition. Jenks, once a stud starting pitching prospect in the Angels' system, was released this winter after a lost '04 season with elbow troubles and some run-ins with the law. Sox GM Kenny Williams recognized Spud's strong potential as an end-of-game relief pitcher and signed him, then set him up as the closer at AA Birmingham for half the season, where he posted good enough numbers to earn a midseason callup and gradual easing into the closer role over the last few weeks of the season. Though there have been a few rough patches, Spud has generally succeeded and brings a few advantages over your run-of-the-mill relievers who bring 100 mph heat. As a former starter, Jenks has a broader array of pitches than many relievers, bringing a fastball, a nice 12-to-6 curveball and the occasional changeup that comes in with the velocity of a Greg Maddux fastball. With exceptional stamina — perhaps from his days as a starter, perhaps because he's nearly six-and-a-half feet tall and more than 250 pounds, or likely because of both — that has seen him pitch as many as four consecutive days during the regular season, Jenks takes us back to the glory days of the two-inning save, like the one he recorded Wednesday night. At the same time, his inexperience in the role and apparent lack of ego means that Ozzie has the option to bring him in during the eighth to face the opposition's best hitters, as also happened Wednesday night when Ortiz and Ramirez batted in that frame, and still have the option of pulling him in the ninth if needed to play lefty-lefty/righty-righty matchups with Cotts and Hermanson or Politte.

Four: Will the Comeback Kings Come Back?
The naysayers still insist that the Red Sox have some superhuman ability to come back and will ultimately win this series, echoing their resurrection from a three-games-to-none deficit against the Yankees last year the fueled them to a World Series sweep. Me, I'm firmly of the school that just because something has happened before doesn't mean it will happen again, especially where masterful defiance of the odds is concerned. As long as the players are trying to hit a round ball squarely with a cylindrical object, certain rules are going to apply — and one of them is that a ballclub with a cruddy pitching staff is going to struggle to put winning streaks together, even modest three-game ones. If the BoSox still had Pedro Martinez and Derek Lowe, I might be worried about a comeback, but with this White Sox staff, I have to follow my head no matter how much it may agree with my Chicago-lovin' heart.

Five: Lest We Forget
Going back to the regular season, the White Sox are riding a seven-game winning streak. Sandwiched between victories in the two playoff games and the final two games at Detroit was a three-game sweep over the Cleveland Indians, who succumbed to the cruel reality that playing .750-ish ball forever is well nigh impossible and staggered through the final week of the season, finally eliminated from the Wild Card race on the season's very last day as the Sox managed to build some momentum and restore their confidence while keeping the players fresh for the playoffs. But listen to me now and hear me later: if the White Sox and Indians come out of spring training next year with the same rosters both ended this season with, I'm going to have to give the edge to Cleveland for the divisional championship. But that's a story for a future Sox in Five — for now, back to rooting the White Sox on toward the World Series!

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About the Author(s)

Steve Gozdecki has been a White Sox fan his entire life, with the exception of an ill-advised flirtation with the 1984 Cubs. Because he swears by the work of the "baseball outsiders," who believe that statistic analysis trumps things like subjective evaluations and team chemistry, he finds himself baffled by the success his team is having in this 2005 season. Each week through the end of the Sox's playoff run — which will hopefully end around Halloween — Steve will bring you five crucial talking points you can use the next time someone says, "Hey, how 'bout them Sox?" Send comments to sox@gapersblock.com.

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