Down to the Wire

With six teams vying for the four American League playoff spots, the season-ending White Sox-Indians and Yankees-Red Sox series loomed as do-or-die showdowns
October 02, 2005

Caffeine has nothing on Ozzie Guillen. Even in the most tranquil of times--say, when his team held a 15-game lead in the American League Central on Aug. 1--the Chicago White Sox manager is a fast-talking, expletive-spewing, insult-chucking, ego-bruising, gut-churning, headline-making natural stimulant. How unsettled is Guillen? When Chicago was running away with the race like Secretariat in the '73 Belmont, the occasional cruel loss made him so sick to his stomach that he'd sometimes pull his office door closed and give new meaning to the phrase hurling for the White Sox. ¶ "Many times I'm sick--physically sick. I'm that upset," he said last Saturday in his U.S. Cellular Field office, which, fortunately, has a private bathroom. "I don't want to show my players how upset I feel after a game." ¶ Losing the occasional lunch, however, is less embarrassing than losing a 15-game advantage. No team in major league history has ever, pardon the expression, blown a lead that big. Yet last week Guillen and the White Sox were staring straight at such infamy while trying to fend off the blazing-hot Cleveland Indians and rampant use of the most insulting word in sports: choke. ¶ Indeed, the entire AL playoff race is, next to a tuna-casserole bake-off, a dyspeptic's worst nightmare. With six days left in the season there were six contenders fighting for the four postseason berths: the White Sox and the Indians in the Central, the Boston Red Sox and the New York Yankees in the East--from among those four teams, separated by 2 1/2 games through Monday, a wild card will also emerge--and the Los Angeles Angels and the Oakland Athletics in the West. One of them is likely to join the 1999 Cincinnati Reds (96-67) as the only teams in the 11-year history of the wild card to win more than 93 games and go home. Serendipitously, the script for the final weekend of the season calls for Chicago to play three games in Cleveland while New York plays three in Boston. ¶ Tranquillity long ago left Guillen and the White Sox, who live on an amazingly thin margin for a team that still had the best record in the league (94-62). Chicago is attempting to become the first AL club in 31 years--and only the 10th in league history--to make the postseason with 33 or more wins by one run. At the same time, the White Sox were the worst clutch-hitting team in the AL (.260 with runners in scoring position), and Guillen was using a 6'3", 270-pound rookie with three career saves as his closer down the stretch (righthander Bobby Jenks).

Chicago was 26-27 since having that 15-game lead. Its predicament was made all the hairier by a Cleveland team riding the best 35-game run in franchise history (28-7 from Aug. 18 to Sept. 24, matching the 1951, '54 and '95 teams). The Indians' surge, which included winning two of three games in a taut series in Chicago from Sept. 19 to 21, had whittled the White Sox lead from 10 1/2 to 1 1/2 games; it stood at two after Monday night. "It's not that we're playing that badly," first baseman Paul Konerko said before Saturday's game. "It's that the Indians are playing out of their minds."

How did Guillen deal with such stress last week? He threatened to quit if his team won the World Series, ripped the media in his native Venezuela and feuded publicly with his DH after dropping him three spots in the lineup. In other words it was just another week in the merry land of Oz. But by winning the last three games of a four-game series with the Minnesota Twins, the White Sox did snap out of a 4-10 tailspin that appeared to mirror the epic collapses of the '64 Phillies and the '95 Angels. It marked the first time in three weeks that Chicago had won back-to-back games or any game by more than two runs. The White Sox needed only a 3-3 finish to clinch a postseason spot.

"If we wind up in the playoffs," Konerko said on Saturday, "and that's still an if, this [race] will wind up being the best thing to happen to this team. It's forced us to get back to playing with energy every night, when we kind of let up for a while. And that's something we can take into the playoffs. Of course the other side of the coin is if we don't make it, it will be the absolutely worst thing to happen to us--a nightmare."

With six games to play, Cleveland was tied for the wild-card lead with AL East-- leading New York, a half game ahead of Boston; the latter two teams faced the possibility of spending the most money ever ($208 million and $124 million payrolls, respectively) on a roster that didn't make the playoffs. When Yankees catcher Jorge Posada struck out at 3:19 p.m. CDT last Saturday to end a 7-4 New York loss to Toronto--a defeat that dropped Chicago's magic number for clinching a playoff spot to four--none of the White Sox players were watching on any of the six clubhouse TVs. They were too absorbed in college football, crossword puzzles or luxury-home magazines as they waited to play the Twins less than three hours later.

Likewise, none of the Chicago players watched the end of Cleveland's games in Kansas City on Friday and Saturday after their wins over Minnesota. Instead they tore out of the clubhouse to beat the post-fireworks traffic at U.S. Cellular Field.

The Indians have been winning with a cool confidence that belies their youth. Righthander Kevin Millwood, 30, one of 10 Indians with playoff experience, said before Friday's 7-6 win in Kansas City, "I thought this team might be a little anxious because it's so young. But I don't see any of these guys panicking. And if they're hiding it, they're doing a pretty good job. Everybody is acting the same as they did in spring training."

The Indians led the league in pitching through week's end (3.65 ERA) and were fourth in runs (774, 4.96 per game). Their September surge has been fueled by DH Travis Hafner (10 homers, 24 RBIs for the month) and centerfielder Grady Sizemore (.340, seven homers, 15 RBIs).

After Hafner, 28, homered in five straight games, reporters asked if he had done so before at any level. "Playing video games and in BP," deadpanned Hafner, who then stretched the streak to six games before it ended on Saturday. Sizemore, 23, who was handed a starting job after Juan Gonzalez went down with a strained right hamstring late in spring training, was fifth in the league with 111 runs at week's end.

Says Guillen, "No offense to Juan Gonzalez, who is a friend, but the best thing to happen to Cleveland was when Juan got hurt and they let Sizemore play every day. The best [bleeping] player in the Central is Sizemore.... I don't even look at their scores now. I expect them to win every [bleeping] game until they play us again."

The 41-year-old Guillen is brutally direct with the media and his players, lacking the edit chip typically found in managers and coaches. "Even in the dugout I tell them if they stink," he says. "I'm not going to be one of these guys who says, 'Oh, don't worry. Everything is going to be O.K.' I don't buy that [stuff], because by the time you wait for things to be O.K. it's too late."

In recent weeks Guillen has ripped reliever Damaso Marte, suggesting he overstated an injury to avoid pitching ("If Marte is not ready to help this team, he can have a nice trip [home] to the Dominican Republic and enjoy himself"); slumping DH Carl Everett, who complained about being dropped from third to sixth in the lineup ("If he thinks he's swinging the bat good, I don't know what game he is watching"); and the Venezuelan media for misinterpreting his remark about quitting if he wins the World Series ("Next time find somebody who understands English better. Bring [the quotes] to the U.S. embassy").

Guillen says that he would consider quitting not to escape the stress, as the Venezuelan media intimated, but to go out on top. As a White Sox shortstop from 1985 through '97, he knows well that the team has not won a World Series since 1917. "I'm one of the fans," he says. "I don't want it for myself. I want it for Chicago. And if we win, I'll be set in this town for 20 years. I'll be just like [former Bears coach Mike] Ditka: Just win one and live off it for 20 years.

"Chicago is a city of [bleeping] losers. We've got to come up with another sport for Chicago, just to win something. The last thing they won here was with the Bulls. So I want to win as badly as the fans do."

To end the drought the White Sox will need timely hitting from a mediocre offense (Chicago was ninth in the league in scoring) and more ace-quality pitching from Jose Contreras (10-2 in the second half, including 5-0 in September and his first career complete game last Friday). "He's so nasty right now, it's like having a closer pitch nine innings," Konerko says.

The White Sox are the sort of team Guillen likes: scrappy but low in star power. When general manager Kenny Williams wondered near the July trading deadline if he should make a major deal--he was interested in Reds centerfielder Ken Griffey Jr.--Guillen lobbied to leave the team untouched. "We were something like 30 games over .500," Guillen says. "It would be a slap in the face to these guys to tell them they're not good enough. This is the team I'm going to live and die with. The fans don't want to see stars. They want to see the team win. If you don't win, I don't care if you have [bleeping] Michael Jordan and Michael Jackson on the field. The fans aren't going to come."

U.S. Cellular Field was sold out on Saturday for the 18th time this season, and the joint jumped when White Sox rightfielder Jermaine Dye blasted his second three-run homer in as many nights, a third-inning shot that put Chicago ahead 6-1. Under the flash of fireworks Guillen smiled, relieved to finally have some breathing room. The final score was 8-1, and the White Sox hadn't won a game so easily since Sept. 2. For one night, anyway, the madness of the pennant race and the haunting specter of infamy left Guillen alone. "I think," he said after the victory, "we're back on track."

SI.COM

Read more about the American and National League playoff races at SI.com/baseball.

"If we wind up in the playoffs, this [race] will wind up being the best thing to happen to this team," Chicago's Konerko says. "If we don't make it, it will be the absolutely WORST THING to happen to us."

PHOTOPhotograph by David Durochik/SportPicsBACKGROUND EXTENDED BY SI IMAGING  GETTING TIGHT
Konerko and the White Sox lost two of three to the Indians in a contentious series early last week. But after Chicago won three straight against Minnesota, a queasy Guillen (inset) was feeling better.
PHOTODAMIAN STROHMEYER [See caption above.] PHOTORON VESELY/MLB PHOTOS/GETTY IMAGES HIGH POINT
White Sox lefty Mark Buehrle (left) and A.J. Pierzynski celebrated a Sept. 20 come-from-behind win over Cleveland.

HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
OUT
HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
IN
Eagle (-2)
Birdie (-1)
Bogey (+1)
Double Bogey (+2)