Baseball

May 28, 2006

Fighting Back

The Cubs avoideda sweep at the hands of their crosstown rivals, but they have a long way to goto match the Sox' success

Last fridaymorning White Sox manager Ozzie Guillen awoke to a headache. It could have beencaused by his lingering cold or, more likely, the onset of another interleagueseries with the Cubs. He enjoys games with the crosstown rival about as much ashe likes keeping his mouth shut. Most of his groaning was about having to dealwith ticket requests from friends he doesn't see regularly as well as theadditional media spotlight. "I'd rather play against Detroit right now thanthe Cubs," Guillen said. "For the players and myself, [the series] isnot a big deal."

In the threegames at U.S. Cellular Field the Cubs proved to be little more than a minornuisance for the world champions. The White Sox outscored the woebegoneNational Leaguers by a combined 17-8, winning the first two games and furtherwidening the disparity between the two Windy City teams. The biggest fireworksof the series came on Saturday, when White Sox catcher A.J. Pierzynski plowedinto his Cubs counterpart, Michael Barrett, who went flying onto his back.After Pierzynski slapped the plate to reaffirm his run scored, he was punchedin the jaw by Barrett and a bench-clearing melee ensued. On Sunday, behind atwo-run homer by Jacque Jones, the Cubs averted the sweep, winning 7-4. Still,they limped back across town with an 18-25 record, on pace for one of theirworst marks in the last 25 years. The loss dropped the White Sox (28-15) a gamebehind the surprising AL Central leaders, the Tigers, who have the best recordin the majors.

Before the seriesstarted, there were rumors in Chicago that Cubs manager Dusty Baker, 56, wouldbe fired if his team was swept over the weekend, but league sources said lastweek that his job was not in jeopardy and, in fact, that the Cubs may offer hima contract extension at the end of the season. (He's in the last year of afour-year deal.) It would be hard for the Cubs to justify firing Baker giventhat his franchise player, first baseman Derrek Lee, played in only 14 gamesbefore fracturing his right wrist and the club's top two pitchers, righthandersMark Prior and Kerry Wood, had made one start between them. Prior, nursing astrained shoulder since spring training, won't return until at least earlyJune; Wood served up three home runs last Thursday in his first start sinceshoulder surgery last August.

"The biggestblow to us was losing Derrek," Cubs infielder Todd Walker says of Lee, whois not expected back until late June. "He's our Albert Pujols. He made ouroffense go." Indeed, the lineup has struggled: The Cubs scored only 52 runsin losing 17 of 22 games through the weekend.

The White Sox,meanwhile, continued on their two-year roll, bolstered by the off-seasonadditions of designated hitter Jim Thome (league-leading 17 home runs and 41RBIs) and righthander Javier Vazquez (4-3, 4.22 ERA as the fifth starter)."They're definitely better this year because their pitching staff is sogood," says Mariners righthander Joel Piñeiro. "And when you throwThome into that offense, they are really something to watch."

Fans agree. Atweek's end attendance at U.S. Cellular Field was up 16% from 2005, and theWhite Sox had already sold more than 2.5 million tickets, eclipsing lastseason's total of 2.34 million. "The fans have been coming out all season,but you kind of wondered how it'd be here when the Cubs came," saysPierzynski. "Last year you heard the Cubs fans. Not so much thisyear."

CLOSER BRADLIDGE

A Good Tipper NoMore

A conversationover dinner at a San Francisco restaurant on May 7 may prove to be the turningpoint of Astros reliever Brad Lidge's season. He was dining with new teammateJoe McEwing, a utilityman who had been called up from Triple A Round Rock thatmorning. When talk turned to Lidge's astonishing struggles--the All-Starrighthander had been rocked for 12 runs in 16 innings, was no longer foolinghitters with his best pitch (the slider) and had lost his closer's job--McEwingoffered this insight: Lidge was tipping his pitches when he threw from thestretch.

McEwing said hefirst detected the flaw during a stint with the Mets; after scrutinizing videoof himself the next day, Lidge saw what McEwing was talking about. He waspositioning his hands at his chest before throwing a slider and at his beltbefore delivering a fastball. But because Lidge was so dominant, he'd rarelyhad to work from the stretch and was able to keep hitters off balance. Earlythis season, however, he had begun pitching exclusively from the stretch.

"I lookedaround the league and most relievers were doing that, so I thought it would beeasier for me to do that," says Lidge, who saved 42 games last season."[But pitching] out of the full windup is how I get my rhythm and how Istay aggressive. From going out of the stretch I also lost the ability todeceive hitters."

Lidge returned tothe windup, and in his next four outings he allowed one base runner and no runsin a total of four innings; last Friday he was back slamming the door on anopponent in the ninth inning, using his filthy slider to set down the Rangersin order and earn his first save in two weeks. Says Lidge, "I've felt likemy old self."

Interleague Inequities

Interleague play returned for its 10th season lastweekend, and so too did the grumbling from teams citing the unfair advantagesit creates. Last year the Indians used their success against interleagueopponents to vault into wild-card contention, going 11-1 against the weak NLWest. This season the schedule figures to influence the NL Central race. Oftheir 15 games against AL opponents, Chris Carpenter (right) and thefirst-place Cardinals should benefit from six against their designated rival,the hapless Royals. On the other hand, the third-place Astros play 12 of their18 interleague games against clubs that had winning records at week's end,including six with their designated rival, the Rangers, who are tied for the ALWest lead. Says one NL team executive, "When these divisions come down toone or two games at the end of the season, interleague can make all thedifference."

PHOTOTANNEN MAURY/EPARIGHTHANDED POWER Barrett drilled Pierzynski last Saturday, then tripled in the tying run in the Cubs' win on Sunday. PHOTOAL TIELEMANS (CARPENTER)

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)