Going the Distance

The White Sox reached their first World Series in 46 years thanks to a staff that threw four straight complete games and a catcher who seemed to be in the middle of every key play
October 23, 2005

He stood on first base with that familiar bemused look, like the kid in the back of the classroom who has no idea--no idea!--whence that flying eraser came. A.J. Pierzynski's Chicago White Sox teammates razzed him from the dugout nearby, oblivious to the tension of an eighth-inning tie in the fifth game of the American League Championship Series on Sunday. "Why is it always you?" shouted infielder Geoff Blum.

"I would have gotten on him, too," first baseman Paul Konerko says, "but to get on A.J. you have to get in line."

Like ammonia, mace or Simon Cowell, Pierzynski is a chronic irritant. He has been called a jerk, a cancer, a provocateur, various unmentionable body parts and, most recently and affectionately, by his third set of teammates in three years, Captain Chaos. All it took to make him the White Sox catcher was getting run out of San Francisco (costing him about $2 million), spending 10 hours on the phone in candid conversations with wary Chicago general manager Kenny Williams and enduring a talking-to by White Sox announcer and family friend Ken (Hawk) Harrelson. In other words, for a salvage operation of a team that would lead the league in wins and baggage, Pierzynski was a perfect fit.

That Captain Chaos found a sweet home in Chicago was never more apparent than during the ALCS against the Los Angeles Angels. Pierzynski made possible both the series-changing run in Game 2 and the series-clinching run in Game 5 as only he can: by somehow reaching base twice on plays on which he was thought to be called out. You can look it up in your Polish-American dictionary: The Angels got Pierzynskied.

"Even when I don't do anything, I do something," Pierzynski said last Thursday.

He channeled the Zen master of catching, Yogi Berra, in more ways than just by uttering mind-bending aphorisms. Pierzynski became the first catcher since Berra in the 1956 World Series to catch four straight complete games in a postseason series.

Indeed, the 101st World Series will have a distinctly retro look. It's nostalgic enough to have the Series in Chicago, where on Saturday night it's scheduled to open for the first time since 1959 (when the Sox lost to the Dodgers in six games). The Sox haven't won the World Series since 1917, a drought exceeded only by the Cubs ('08). On top of that the Sox rotation is rendering moot closers, bullpen specialists, DHs, computers, maple-triple-dipped lacquered bats and most other conveniences of the modern game. They might as well show up on Saturday in wool uniforms and handlebar mustaches.

After Jose Contreras missed a complete game by two outs in a 3--2 Game 1 loss, Chicago's Mark Buehrle, Jon Garland, Freddy Garcia and Contreras threw complete-game wins. Only once before--and not since there was a Mother's Day, commercial air travel, the Model T, Bibles in hotel rooms and Take Me Out to the Ball Game--has a team won four straight postseason games with four different starters and no relievers: the Cubs of Aught-Seven.

"That's something you're never going to see again," Pierzynski says.

Says Angels second baseman Adam Kennedy, "If they take that pitching staff into the World Series the way they've been throwing, nobody's going to beat them. They played perfect baseball. When they executed, with the stuff they have, we had no shot."

Adds Sox pitching coach Don Cooper, "When a pitching staff is doing as well as we are this year, there are two things you have to look at: the defense behind them and the person in front of them calling the game. [Pierzynski] remembers the game plan and follows it."

entering the World Series the Sox will have played only eight games (seven of them wins) in 20 days, a restful stretch that seems to agree with their starting pitchers. A robust Garland, for instance, working on 13 days' rest in Game 3, smothered the Angels 5--2 on four hits, with darting 94-mph four-seam fastballs instead of his usual steady supply of 90-mph sinkers.

"He looked like it was Opening Day," Cooper said.

The Sox have a timeless pitching philosophy: attack the strike zone early in the count and work quickly. They rarely stray from the rubber between pitches, and because Pierzynski calls the game himself, they don't need to wait for signals to be relayed from the dugout. Cooper shoots for an almost unheard-of 70% first-pitch strikes (the Sox had 64% against Los Angeles), innings of 13 or fewer pitches (Chicago averaged 12.4 in the ALCS) and at bats that are dictated by the first three pitches. (The Angels had only four walks and only 11 other plate appearances with even three balls.)

Ozzie Guillen, the manager who oversees the staff, is old school--if your idea of old school is as much Jackie Mason (with whom Williams compares Guillen for his blunt humor) as John McGraw. As a coach with the Expos, Guillen once handed in only five names on his end-of-season team evaluation. "They're the only ones here who can play," he reasoned.

His 2003 managerial interview began with Williams explaining that Cito Gaston was the front-runner for the job, and then telling Guillen that he had a lot of convincing to do if he wanted to land the post. Guillen's response: "Go to hell." He largely ignores scouting reports and computers, uses a glass desk only slightly larger than a TV snack tray to underscore his lack of interest in paperwork, and limits his inventory of in-game information to two laminated two-by-three cards.

"If a pitcher's going good, we leave him in," Cooper says. "And if he's not, we get him out. How revolutionary."

Pierzynski says he quickly grew comfortable playing for Guillen and with Chicago's other castoffs, such as Contreras (traded by the Yankees), closer Bobby Jenks (waived by the Angels), outfielder Jermaine Dye (let go as a free agent by the A's) and DH Carl Everett (traded by the Expos). Before being dealt to the Giants in November 2003, Pierzynski played 10 seasons in the Minnesota Twins' organization, developing a reputation as a pest who might step on a hitter's bat after he leaves the batter's box or elbow a fielder while running to first base.

"He's the classic guy you hate as an opponent but love as a teammate," says Konerko, the ALCS MVP with two home runs and seven RBIs.

With San Francisco, however, Pierzynski irritated teammates, too. One of them anonymously called him "a cancer" and said he once played cards for 20 minutes rather than attend a meeting to review opposing hitters.

Says Pierzynski, "I finished my hand--it took two minutes--and attended the meeting. I've never missed a meeting."

The Giants had enough of him after one year. Rather than pay Pierzynski the $4.5 million or so he was likely to earn through arbitration, they signed free agent Mike Matheny, 34, and cut the 27-year-old lefthanded-hitting catcher who was coming off a career-best 77-RBI season. Pierzynski signed with Chicago for $2.25 million--only after Harrelson told him the Sox needed his grit and Williams urged him to shed his reputation as an unlikeable agitator.

"I probably made more phone calls on A.J. than I have for any other player," Williams says. "I must have talked to him for 10 hours or more. They were very candid conversations. I told him, 'Even if we don't sign you, you need to know this, for yourself and your family.'

"You know who he is? He's that Little League catcher who you have to remind, 'Don't make fun of the other batters when they strike out. Just let them strike out.'"

pierzynski hit .257 with a career-high 18 homers, the most by a Sox catcher in 12 years. He batted .167 in the ALCS but contributed a home run in Game 4 and two of the series' most memorable plays without the benefit of a hit. With the score tied and two outs in the ninth inning of Game 2, Pierzynski whiffed on a low pitch by righthander Kelvim Escobar. Third-string catcher Josh Paul, assuming he had caught the pitch cleanly, rolled the ball to the mound and ran to the dugout. Pierzynski took one step toward his dugout but wheeled and dashed to first base on the chance that the ball had nicked the ground before Paul caught it. (Replays were inconclusive.) Home plate umpire Doug Eddings gave no audible call but motioned with his right fist as if to signal an out--he later said that this was his "mechanic" for calling a strike--and then ruled Pierzynski safe at first base. Three pitches later, after pinch runner Pablo Ozuna had stolen second and scored on a double by Joe Crede, the game was over and the momentum of the series permanently altered.

"My dad told me it was a smart move to run like that," Pierzynski says. "I also got a lot of text messages from people saying, 'That could only happen with you.' It's very true."

The series was decided in the eighth inning of Game 5 on another only-Pierzynski moment, again with Escobar pitching and two outs in a tie game. Aaron Rowand was at first, and Pierzynski chopped a ball that hit Escobar in the butt and caromed near the first base line. The pitcher picked it up and, according to first base umpire Randy Marsh, tagged out Pierzynski. But after Guillen argued, the umpires ruled (correctly, as replays showed) that Escobar had tagged Pierzynski with his empty glove while holding the ball in his right hand. Escobar was charged with an error. As the Angels brought in closer Frankie Rodriguez, the Sox teased Pierzynski about his knack for being disruptive.

"I get blamed for everything," Pierzynski said afterward. "That's O.K. I'm used to it."

Crede again knocked in the tiebreaking run, this time on an infield single, as Chicago went on to win 6--3. Contreras, continuing another trend, retired the last 15 batters. In the hands of Captain Chaos, Sox pitchers allowed only six hits and no runs after the sixth inning of each ALCS game.

"It's timeless," Konerko says of the White Sox way. "You watch the Little League World Series, and the team with the best pitching wins. It's no different on the big league level. We scratch out just enough runs and rely on our pitching. Now we just need to do it for one more week."

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Smother Brothers
Since divisional play began in 1969, few teams' pitchers have been as dominant in a best-of-seven series as the White Sox'--led by Jose Contreras, Mark Buehrle, Jon Garland and Freddy Garcia--were in this year's ALCS.
MOST INNINGS PITCHED PER START          
Team Series Opponent Series Result G IP by Starters IP/Start
2005 WHITE SOX ALCS Angels W, 4--1 5 441/3 8.87
1985 ROYALS World Series Cardinals W, 4--3 7 551/3 7.90
1986 ASTROS NLCS Mets L, 4--2 6 471/3 7.89
1969 METS World Series Orioles W, 4--1 5 391/3 7.87
1969 ORIOLES World Series Mets L, 4--1 5 38 7.60
             
BEST STRIKEOUT-TO-WALK RATIO          
Team Series Opponent Series Result K's BB K/BB
2005 WHITE SOX ALCS Angels W, 4--1 22 4 5.50
2002 ANGELS ALCS Twins W, 4--1 38 7 5.43
1996 BRAVES NLCS Cardinals W, 4--3 53 11 4.82
2000 YANKEES World Series Mets W, 4--1 48 11 4.36
1983 ORIOLES World Series Phillies W, 4--1 29 7 4.14
             
LOWEST OPPONENT BATTING AVERAGE          
Team Series Opponent Series Result Hits AB Opp. BA
1969 METS World Series Orioles W, 4--1 23 157 .146
2005 WHITE SOX ALCS Angels W, 4--1 27 154 .175
1988 DODGERS World Series A's W, 4--1 28 158 .177
1995 BRAVES World Series Indians W, 4--2 35 195 .179
1990 A'S ALCS Red Sox W, 4--0 23 126 .183
Source: Elias Sports Bureau

SI.COM

More World Series coverage, including Tom Verducci's Insider column, at SI.com/baseball.

Kennedy says of the White Sox' World Series prospects, "The way they've been throwing, NOBODY'S GOING TO BEAT THEM."

PHOTOPhotograph by John Biever LIVE BATTERY Contreras (who lasted a mere 81/3 innings in a Game 1 loss) and the other Sox starters thrive on Pierzynski's savvy pitch-calling. PHOTOROBERT BECKLIVE BATTERY Contreras (who lasted a mere 81/3 innings in a Game 1 loss) and the other Sox starters thrive on Pierzynski's savvy pitch-calling. THREE PHOTOSCHUCK SOLOMON (3)PIVOTAL POINT Game 2--and the series--turned when Pierzynski, after hesitating, dashed safely to first, and soon scored. PHOTOJOHN BIEVER (BOTTOM)PIVOTAL POINT Game 2--and the series--turned when Pierzynski, after hesitating, dashed safely to first, and soon scored. PHOTOJOHN BIEVER (BUEHRLE)Buehrle PHOTOROBERT BECK (3)Garland PHOTOROBERT BECK (3)Garcia PHOTOROBERT BECK (3)Contreras PHOTOJOHN W. MCDONOUGHPENNANT PILEUP After nailing down the series against the Angels on Sunday, Chicago enjoyed a long-awaited celebration.

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)