Softballers turned small-ballers

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CHICAGO -- The hero for the White Sox in their season-saving win late Sunday afternoon was supposed to be Roger Bossard. Bossard is the head groundskeeper at U.S. Cellular Field. In his 41 seasons, he's developed trick after trick to ensure that his club's home-field advantage is, in fact, as advantageous it can possibly get.

In the series' first two games, on Tropicana Field's fast artificial turf, the young and athletic Rays made the White Sox seem inexorably plodding; the Rays took extra base after extra base, often several at a time, while the Sox couldn't do much more than advance station-to-station and wait for a big blow that never came. They stranded 12 baserunners in Friday's Game 2 as a result. Bossard's job, then, was to slow the speedy Rays with a few extra scoops of dirt and a few extra squirts from his hose -- to better enable the Sox to win the game by doing what they do best: mashing the ball over the fence, which they did 235 times during the regular season, 21 more than any other team.

"[The field] may be a little wet around first base because we can run," predicted Rays manager Joe Maddon, who was well aware that while the Rays had the AL's best home record (57-24), the White Sox were third-best (54-28). "It may be a little bit wet in front of the plate because they hit more flyballs than groundballs. They're very good at tailoring the ballpark to their needs."

"I will talk to Roger about it," Sox manager Ozzie Guillen half-joked on Saturday. "I will tell [him], make sure you have a swimming pool at first base."

The rainstorm that delayed the start of Sunday's game by 35 minutes made the field even slower, and seemed to play into the Sox's power-hitting hands. ("You can get in a game with them where they get on fire and hit eight home runs," Rays closer Troy Percival had observed on Friday). After the showers stopped, though, something unexpected happened: the White Sox, who had looked like a bunch of Popeye-forearmed, creaky-kneed Beer Leaguers just days ago in Florida, suddenly became the aggressors on the basepaths, as water-soaked as they were. Softballers suddenly turned into small-ballers. And this time, the Rays were the laggards.

The White Sox didn't hit a home run in their 5-3 (Recap | Box Score) win -- and, for once, they had no need for one. Not when they had DeWayne Wise, a sparkplug out of the eighth spot in the order, stealing second with two outs in the bottom of the third (the first swipe of the ALDS for the Sox), and then scoring on an A.J. Pierzynski single. Not when they had three men who normally move with the rapidity of Alaska's Mantanuska Glacier -- Jim Thome, Paul Konerko and Ken Griffey Jr. -- tagging up and successfully advancing on a Alexei Ramirez bases-loaded flyball. (Thome scored on the play, and Konerko and Griffey followed on a subsequent double by Wise). Not when they had Brian Anderson to pinch run for Griffey after he walked in the sixth; Anderson stole second, and scored the Sox's fifth and final run on a Juan Uribe single.

The Sox received a strong performance from starter John Danks, who allowed three earned runs in 6 2/3 innings. But the story of Game 3 was their unexpectedly aggressive offense. "I think it got everybody excited in the dugout [to] see those guys play the game the way it should be playing," said Guillen afterward. "We got to move, you know, people round ... hit [and] run here and try to steal a couple bases. We [got] something done."

On this day, facing the prospect of being swept out of the playoffs by a bunch of postseason neophytes, the Sox won by playing in a style that was completely out of character (they stole three bases in total, after swiping only 67 during the regular season). "At least we play tomorrow," added Guillen. "That's the only thing about it."

Tomorrow, though, expect Bossard and his crew to arrive at the field early, and to run up a hefty water bill as they prepare the field for Game 4. Guillen knows that the White Sox aren't about to permanently transform themselves into a Midwestern version of the Rays or the Angels at this late stage of the season, and it's unlikely that they'll win a second straight game without hitting a single home run. Tomorrow, expect the White Sox to attempt to outslug the Rays once more. Tonight, though, they outran them, and that's the major reason why they'll have the opportunity to try.