Less than three weeks ago, the Chicago White Sox were on the verge of losing their playoff berth to the upstart Cleveland Indians. Today, the South Siders are four wins away from their first World Championship since 1919.
White Sox chairman Jerry Reinsdorf is used to winning. He oversaw six NBA championships as chairman of the Chicago Bulls. Though his baseball team hasn’t been quite as successful, the 2005 White Sox led the second-place Indians by 15 games in the AL Central at the beginning of August. But as the dog days wore on, that lead began to shrink. In the final weeks of the season, Cleveland had shaved Chicago’s edge to a mere one-and-a-half games. According to The New York Times, Reinsdorf was in a panic.
“I thought I was tied on a railroad track with a train headed toward me,” Reinsdorf said. “I was scared to death we were going to blow it.”
At the same time, manager Ozzie Guillen proclaimed, “We stink.”
But Guillen did his best Phil Jackson impression, and the White Sox successfully derailed the Indians, winning their last five games to finish with an AL-best 99 wins. Over that last week, one of Chicago’s top performers was a guy who was pitching in Double-A at the beginning of July — a 24-year-old closer named Bobby Jenks.
At 6’3″ and 260 pounds, Jenks could probably beat up any pitcher in the majors. Topping out at more than 100 miles per hour, his fastball is among the best in the bigs. Jenks was claimed by the White Sox off waivers in December 2004 — ironically, from the Angels — as he recovered from injury and his heater was clocked at a preposterous 103 mph before his surgery that year. He still breaches the century mark on the radar gun, and the hefty righty also boasts a knee-buckling curveball. But Jenks has less than four months of major league experience. And now that the White Sox have advanced to the World Series, their success may hinge on his surgically repaired, 24-year-old right elbow.
Both of Chicago’s potential opponents, St. Louis and Houston, have dominant closers with plenty of experience in Jason Isringhausen and Brad Lidge. Jenks, by contrast, only has 39.1 major league innings under his belt. But during that span, the Chicago flamethrower gave up just 34 hits while fanning 50. In his two postseason appearances, Jenks allowed just one hit in three innings while notching two crucial saves against the Red Sox, including the Game 3 clincher at Fenway Park. So it seems he has the stuff and the makeup to be dominant in October.
Jenks and the rest of the Chicago bullpen will be well-rested for the World Series. With the exception of Neal Cotts, who threw seven pitches in game one of the ALCS, no Chicago reliever has thrown a pitch since Oct. 7, the last game of the ALDS against Boston. Mark Buehrle, Jon Garland, Freddy Garcia and Jose Contreras did what no rotation has done since 1928 – pitch four consecutive complete game victories in the postseason. In five games against the Angels, Chicago’s starters held opponents to a .179 batting average while maintaining an ERA of 2.23. For a team known more for its hitting, the Sox are in excellent shape.
The hitters, by the way, aren’t doing so badly either. Led by ALCS MVP Paul Konerko, the Sox have scored 19 runs in their last three postseason games. With a lineup that boasts expert table-setters Scott Podsednik and Tadahito Iguchi at the top, followed by formidable sluggers in the middle such as Jermaine Dye and Konerko, as well as solid hitters at the end, Chicago’s lineup is strong all the way through.
The line-ups of their prospective World Series opponents are not. With the NLCS returning to St. Louis tonight, the Astros hold a 3-2 advantage over the Cardinals. As Albert Pujols proved on Monday night, he is well on his way to being the greatest hitter of our generation. Only 25 years old, Pujols has blasted 201 homers and scored 629 runs in his first five seasons while batting an outstanding .332. But “Phat Albert” is the only superstar in an injury-ravaged lineup full of brittle veterans and mediocre subs. As a result, Pujols posted a “disappointing” RBI total of 117 in 2005 – the lowest total in his budding Hall of Fame career. The depleted Cardinals will be no match for the Astros, and even if Mark Mulder out-duels Roy Oswalt tonight, there is no way Roger Clemens would let the Cardinals beat him in Game 7.
Assuming the Astros advance, Chicago will face a formidable threat. The Astros’ lineup, while weaker than the White Sox’s, does include a number of sluggers, including Craig Biggio, Lance Berkman and Morgan Ensberg. And Jeff Bagwell, the Albert Pujols of the 1990s, who has been relegated to pinch-hitting duties as he recovers from a shoulder injury, will most likely be available as a DH during games in the Windy City.
But Houston will be much less rested than Chicago when Saturday’s World Series opener rolls around. If the Astros are pushed to a seventh game against the Cardinals, number four starter Brandon Backe may have to start two World Series games, and though he dominated St. Louis in Game 4, Backe gave up more hits than innings pitched during the regular season while posting a 4.76 ERA.
The Houston triumvirate of Oswalt, Clemens and Pettitte will put up a gallant fight, but the Sox have the stronger team. The Red Sox ended their 86-year championship drought in 2004; the White Sox will do the same in 2005. Chicago over Houston in six, with the final strike coming from a 100 mph Bobby Jenks fastball.
Zack O’Malley Greenburg is a junior in Calhoun College.