This is an in-depth breakdown of the most important half-innings during the White Sox 2005 championship run, publishing concurrently with the NBC Sports Chicago playoff reruns. The third installment covers the bottom of the sixth inning in Game 3 of the ALDS.
Setting the scene
In the top of the sixth, Paul Konerko gives the White Sox a 4-2 lead with a two-run bomb off knuckleballer Tim Wakefield. Heading to the bottom of the sixth inning, the White Sox win probability sits at 73%. However, Manny Ramírez finishes Freddy Garcia’s night with a leadoff home run, cutting the lead to 4-3. Damaso Marte enters, and the wheels begin to fall off. Trot Nixon greets him with a single, and back-to-back walks load the bases with nobody out. Although the White Sox lead, 4-3, their win probability has fallen all the way to 33%.
Into the hornet’s nest comes Orlando Hernandez, Chicago's fifth starter for the majority of the season. As teams typically only use four starters in the playoffs, “El Duque” has moved into a swing role in the bullpen. With Marte struggling and the Boston faithful reinvigorated, Ozzie looks to his seasoned playoff veteran for one last magic act.
Batter: Jason Varitek
Bases loaded, no outs, 4-3 White Sox
White Sox win probability: 33%
Jason Varitek comes on to pinch-hit for Doug Mirabelli, who was only starting because he handles Wakefield’s knuckleball. Varitek is a leader of the Red Sox team and was an integral part of their 2004 World Series title. Coming in relief to a high-leverage situation, El Duque's stuff plays up a tick compared to his role as a starter, as all of his pitches are coming in with extra velocity compared to his season averages. For his career, Varitek is 3-for-28 with 10 strikeouts vs Hernandez, who starts with a slow curve ball that is called ball one. Ozzie has been in home plate umpire Mark Wegner’s ear the whole inning, and he lets Wegner know what he thinks of this call as well. Eventually, on a 2-1 count, Varitek chases what would have been ball three, a fastball at his eyes. Only 3.7% of Varitek’s at-bats in 2005 ended with an infield pop out, but El Duque gets him to do just that, and Konerko camps under it for out No. 1.
Batter: Tony Graffanino
Bases loaded, one out, 4-3 White Sox
White Sox win probability: 43%
Graffanino comes up with a chance to atone for his Game 2 miscue. With a righty-righty matchup, Hernandez lowers his arm slot on his first offering, sending a low three-quarters fastball towards the plate that Graffanino fouls back. Hernandez mixes up his arm slots throughout the at-bat, sticking with fastballs and sliders, and eventually the count runs full. With nowhere to put the hitter, Hernandez comes at him with three fastballs, and Graffanino fouls all of them off. The more fastballs in a row Graffanino sees, the more dangerous he becomes.
Before the 10th pitch of the at-bat, A.J. heads out to the mound to discuss what they want to do. The safe option is to stick with fastballs, not risking a slider when a walk will score the tying run. As a hitter, a mound visit can get in your head. It is hard to resist the urge to start guessing what pitch they are discussing, rather than clearing your mind and trusting your abilities. When play resumes, Hernandez hits Graffanino with a 3-2 slider at the bottom of the zone. Graffanino is well out in front of the pitch, and another infield pop up is the result. Juan Uribe snags it for a huge second out.
Batter: Johnny Damon
Bases loaded, two out, 4-3 White Sox
White Sox win probability: 56%
With two outs, the White Sox are in a much better position, but they are not out of the woods yet. Scrappy leadoff man Johnny Damon steps up. As the hardest guy in lineup to strike out, Damon always seems to make something happen. Hernandez yet again starts off with a slow, loopy curve. The pitch is high, but A.J. does a good job of catching it deep, giving it more time to come down into the zone, and El Duque gets strike one. He misses with the next two pitches, but then blows a fastball by Damon to even the count at 2-2. The next pitch just misses outside, and the count has again run full. With two outs and a full count, the runners are off on the pitch, and the decibel level in the park is at its peak. Damon fouls off a fastball, and A.J. heads to the mound again. Last time, this led to a 3-2 slider, and Damon has to be wondering whether they will switch things up or go back to it. Sure enough, El Duque comes with a back-foot slider, and Damon is barely unable to check his swing. To Wegner’s credit, he makes a decisive out call, not bothering to ask for help. Hernandez and A.J. storm off the field and are greeted with a hero’s welcome in the White Sox dugout.
In the inning, El Duque throws six pitches on full counts, with nowhere to put the hitter, and is able to get a swing on each of them. The White Sox win probability is back up to 68%, a 35% jump over the course of just three at-bats.
El Duque stays in the game, and his seventh inning is arguably even more impressive, as he dominates Edgar Renteria, David Ortiz, and Manny Ramírez with two strikeouts and a ground out. Overall, Hernandez throws three scoreless frames, and after the White Sox tack on an insurance run in the top of the ninth, Bobby Jenks slams the door. The White Sox celebrate a sweep of the defending champs on their home field, moving on to the American League Championship Series for the first time since 1993.
Postscript- Check out this video of the always-entertaining Don Cooper sharing his take on El Duque's performance!