Tuesday, October 18, 2005

Elation and frustration

Watching the playoffs when your team is not playing is kind of like those times in your life when you aren't dating anyone.
When you see couples holding hands in the park, it makes you feel lonely. When you see couples arguing, you are thankful you don't have to endure the same.
Right now, the White Sox are the happy couple trading smooches on a blanket under a tree. The Astros are the Mr. and Mrs. having a blowup in the supermarket aisle about which brand of spaghetti sauce to buy.
I watched the White Sox clinch a pennant this weekend with relative ease, dropping the Angels in five games and giving me wistful thoughts of what might have been had the Indians even played .500 ball over the season's final week.
How could you not be happy for the White Sox, no matter how hard you try not to? And believe me, I did.
The White Sox are a member of baseball's damned, like the Indians. They haven't been to the World Series since 1959, and haven't won it since 1917.
But, like the Indians, their suffering has largely been in silence all these years. While legions of fans and media played their violins for the Red Sox and Cubs, the White Sox were mostly ignored, the neglected stepchild of Chicago with a bad-neighborhood stadium on the city's south side and notoriously poor attendance rate.
Now, the White Sox are a national story, and Ozzie Guillen is four wins away from becoming a certified baseball genius.
The White Sox have a $75 million payroll, which hardly qualifies them as an underdog financially. But the White Sox are in the World Series with Bobby Jenks, a rookie closer who was in Class AA ball at the start of the year. They are in the World Series with one true power hitter (Paul Konerko), a rookie second baseman (Tadahito Iguchi) and undercard names like Aaron Rowand, Joe Crede and Juan Uribe in the lineup.
Guillen rode his pitching to this point, made Mark Buehrle, Jon Garland, Freddy Garcia and Jose Contreras his horses. It worked unfathomably well. In the ALCS, Chicago starters became the first team since the 1956 Yankees to have four complete-game victories in a playoff series. In five games, Chicago's bullpen worked 2/3 of an inning.
If this continues into the World Series, Chicago's rotation might go down in history alongside the '90s Braves, the late '60s-early '70s Orioles, and the late '40s-early '50s Indians as the greatest rotations of all time.
If the White Sox are glowing, the Astros are burning. If they lose the NLCS now, they might take up residence among baseball's damned.
In the span of three at-bats, Houston closer Brad Lidge went from the World Series to the possibility of becoming this generation's Donnie Moore.
When you get right down to it, Albert Pujols' ninth-inning homer Monday was eerily similar to Dave Henderson's Game 5 blast off Moore in the 1986 ALCS that sent the Red Sox-Angels series back to Boston, where the Red Sox took the final two games.
Like Moore, Lidge was one strike away from the World Series, up 4-2 in the game and 3-1 in the series. The ever-pesky David Eckstein managed a rolling single between short and third to keep the inning going.
With stomachs turning all over Minute Maid Park, including Lidge's apparently, he proceeded to become unglued, walking Jim Edmonds to bring Pujols to the plate.
During the walk to Edmonds, Lidge became woefully tentative, bouncing curveballs in the dirt a la Jose Mesa in the 1997 World Series.
Pujols was hitting .333 in the series, but was a career .200 hitter off Lidge. It didn't matter, as Pujols took the first get-me-over fastball he saw from Lidge and nearly hit it out of the stadium for a 5-4 lead, and ultimately, the win.
Houston now heads back to St. Louis in the exact same position they were in after five games of last year's NLCS: up 3-2 and facing two possible games in loud, raucous Busch Stadium.
Last year, all the Cardinals needed was to get the series back home. They won the last two games. This year, given the end of Game 5, I don't think anyone would be surprised to see an identical outcome.

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