What was I saying about the White Sox being dangerous? The Sox turned on the Cubs like a wounded animal in their home-and-home series, winning the first two games at Wrigley Field two weeks ago before the Cubs salvaged the finale, and doing the same last weekend at Sox Park. These series were a source of great joy to Sox fans, and anguished their Cubs counterparts. There are Sox fans who hate the Cubs and Cubs fans who hate the Sox, and when their team wins and the other loses they say, "We took two today." Yet many more fans of one team are ambivalent about the other, their feelings dependent on when and where they grew up and which players they took a shining to. If pressed, I'd have to say I'm more of a Cubs fan than a Sox fan, because when I arrived in Chicago as a boy in 1968, the Sox opened the season with ten straight losses and the Cubs were on the ascent. The following year sealed my lot with the dysfunctional Cubs family. Yet as a professional I've tried to maintain a certain objectivity. This year I was rooting for the Cubs, because they'd played better early and entered their first series with the Sox leading the NL Central Division, while the Sox had played poorly and lethargically, squandering their abundant abilities. Even so, I believed the Sox had the more talented team, and I was half hoping the intense rivalry with the Cubs would awaken them to make a run in the second half. The six games produced some tremendous baseball, and the Sox earned their victories and their loyal fans' allegiance. How could any Chicago fan begrudge them that?
The series were an initiation for the Cubs' new manager, Dusty Baker. I don't know what the Bay Area series were like when he was managing the San Francisco Giants against the Oakland Athletics, but he seemed unprepared for what was at stake here in Chicago. He juggled his pitching rotation to get twin aces Kerry Wood and Mark Prior into the interleague series with the New York Yankees, and they responded with back-to-back victories. But it turned out that this made neither available for the first series with the Sox, at Wrigley. In 1998, Sox manager Jerry Manuel had been caught unawares by his first interleague series, and the following year he plotted from the middle of the winter to arrange his staff for maximum efficiency against the Cubs. The Sox proceeded to embarrass the Cubs, dragging them down from their wild-card playoff perch of the previous year and jump-starting the Sox toward the 2000 AL Central title. Baker sent Shawn Estes, his most erratic starter, against the Sox in the Wrigley Field opener two weeks ago, and Estes didn't have it, getting pounded in a 12-3 loss. The next day the almost equally erratic Matt Clement--less so only because he's been more dependably mediocre than Estes, nothing like the 12-game winner he was last year--staked the Sox and their struggling former ace Mark Buehrle to a 6-0 lead. Buehrle staggered a bit, as did the bullpen down the stretch, but the Sox held on for a 7-6 victory, thanks to a play in which Cubs catcher Damian Miller, waved home by third base coach Wendell Kim, was thrown out at the plate.
As I leaned against the batting cage that Sunday, with summer finally fully arrived, each crack of bat on ball piercing the ears, and me thinking it just doesn't get much better--I kept wondering how the Sox could possibly be under .500. Hitting off his front foot, his back foot lifted, the timing of his swing down pat, Frank Thomas kept launching shots into the stands and beyond. At one point he crushed a pitch onto Waveland Avenue, took another only inches wide of the plate, then pounded a third over the back fence of the bleachers. Pointing his front foot to prepare to reach outside, Magglio Ordonez calmly dropped his bat onto the ball and smashed line drives into the outfield. The baby-faced Joe Crede, in his baggy pants looking as ever like a Little Leaguer, slashed two-handed shots into the gaps. Add Paul Konerko and Jose Valentin, and how could this powerful lineup have been so bad this year at scoring runs? But for most of the first half of the season it had, and the offensive woes returned on this afternoon, as home-plate umpire Paul Nauert called a wide and inconsistent strike zone. The Sox scratched out a run in the sixth to take a 1-0 lead: Valentin doubled, went to third on a fundamentally sound grounder by Crede, and came home on a sacrifice fly by Miguel Olivo, the promising rookie catcher who'd hit a grand slam off Estes in the series opener. Cubs starter Carlos Zambrano worked through the top of the eighth without further incident. In the bottom half of that inning, Baker took him out for left-handed pinch hitter Troy O'Leary, and Manuel responded by yanking starter Bartolo Colon, working on a three-hit shutout, in favor of lefty Damaso Marte. He got O'Leary, but promptly gave up the lead on a single by Mark Grudzielanek, a double by Ramon Martinez that scored Grudzie on a close play at the plate and offered Kim a little redemption, and a single by Corey Patterson. Joe Borowski came on to throw darts on the fringes of the strike zone and seal the 2-1 win.
If the Cubs had seemed surprised by the suddenly ferocious Sox, both teams were equally intense when they met again last Friday on the south side. The Cubs drew blood on a run-scoring double by Patterson in the top of the first, but then the game settled into a pitchers' duel between the Sox' Dan Wright and the Cubs' Clement, who seemed to have regained his power by growing back last year's chin beard. Speaking of regained powers, the resurgent Thomas tied the game with a homer in the sixth. In the seventh the Cubs loaded the bases with one out, but Tom Gordon came on to fan Sammy Sosa and get Moises Alou on a groundout. In the bottom half Carlos Lee reached out for a letter-high fastball on the outside corner and lashed it into the right-field seats, finishing with a one-handed flourish of the bat worthy of Zorro. The Sox added another run in the eighth on a Sandy Alomar Jr. single, a two-out walk by Thomas, and a single by Ordonez. The Sox had the lead and insurance.
But Manuel, as ever working almost systematically to undermine the confidence of his bullpen closer--in this case Billy Koch, who'd lost a game earlier in the week on an 11th-inning homer--left Gordon in to finish. He couldn't, and the bases were loaded with no one out when Manuel finally called on Koch. He got Patterson on a low curveball. Then Sosa hit a sacrifice fly, and Alou came up and hit the first pitch into the hole between third base and shortstop to tie the game. The Cubs' Antonio Alfonseca, who remained in the game after finishing the eighth, got Lee to lead off the bottom of the ninth. Then Valentin dropped his bat on a low fastball and drilled it. No sooner had he finished his swing than he let the bat drop and threw his hands in the air, signaling touchdown. The ball landed in the right-field seats; the Sox had won again.
The following game, on Saturday, was even more brutal for the Cubs. They scored three in the first off the portly Colon, as ever in a uniform even baggier than Crede's that makes him look as if he just rolled out of bed and went out to pitch in his pajamas. But the Sox tied the game in the bottom of the inning with three runs off Zambrano, who gave up the go-ahead run in the third on a double by Ordonez and a single by Lee. Colon never settled down. Having walked three in the first, he walked two more in the fifth, which led to two runs and a 5-4 Cubs lead. Two more walks helped the Cubs to an insurance run in the sixth, with Patterson singling in Miller against lefty reliever David Sanders. The first two Sox batters reached base in the bottom of the seventh when Thomas walked and Ordonez singled, but O'Leary made a great catch on a drive by Lee to deep left field--the ball rattling around in his mitt like a coin in a tin cup--and Sosa robbed Valentin of an apparent homer when he made a leaping catch at the top of the wall in right. The Cubs went to the eighth leading 6-4. But Alfonseca committed the cardinal sin of walking pinch hitter Armando Rios with one out. One out later, he grooved a pitch down the middle, and Aaron Rowand pounced on it, smashing the ball into the left-field seats to tie the game. Sox fans roared; Alfonseca trudged from the mound at the end of the inning and hung his head in the corner of the dugout. Koch came on to work an amazingly efficient ninth--three up, three down--and in the bottom half Juan Cruz, newly returned to the Cubs from the minors, walked Ordonez to lead off the inning. Lee flied deep to right, but Ordonez--playing the sort of hustling baseball the Sox had noticeably eschewed over the first two months--tagged up and advanced to second. Lefty Mike Remlinger came on to get Valentin, then worked around Tony Graffanino. With two out and two on, light-hitting D'Angelo Jimenez dribbled one up the middle and Ordonez slid home, slapping the plate and throwing both arms in the air as if he'd reached the bottom of a water slide.
Baker and Manuel were quite chummy around the batting cage before Sunday's finale; Manuel was no doubt telling Baker he expected him to be better prepared next year. Yet Baker did have Wood lined up to pitch this game, and after a bleeding run in the second, on a hit and a sacrifice fly, Wood mowed the Sox down. Esteban Loaiza, who has gone from a nonroster invitee in spring training to ace of the Sox staff with 11 wins, pitched a shutout into the fourth, but then Sosa singled solidly to center, and Alou turned on an inside pitch and lined it into the left field seats to put the Cubs up 2-1. They added another run in the inning on a Karros double and a single by Tom Goodwin, and yet another in the fifth with the help of a Sox error. Rowand homered off Wood in the bottom of the frame to ignite the hopes of Sox fans, but Jose Hernandez, freshly returned to town in a trade for Mark Bellhorn, responded in kind in the Cubs' sixth and the score was 5-2. That's where it remained--as if both clubs were spent after six intensely fought games--but not without one last gasp by the Sox in the seventh. They loaded the bases on two walks and a bloop hit, but Baker left Wood in, and he whiffed Rios on a biting curve and got Willie Harris to pop out. Joe Borowski finished up in the ninth, and the Cubs had saved a little face.
In the past, I've written how the Cubs and Sox, like the spouses in Henry James's novel The Sacred Fount, seem to trade a finite amount of verve and good fortune back and forth. These two sets of games certainly inspired the Sox, to the point where they sandwiched a series victory over the arch-rival Twins in Minnesota in between them. Even after the final loss to the Cubs, they'd rallied to within three games of .500 and were back in the hunt in the AL Central. Buehrle won the series clincher in Minnesota, seemingly back in form after a miserable stretch early in the season, and the Sox looked like a completely different team than they'd been a month earlier. Yet the Cubs didn't surrender all their initiative to the Sox. Though they'd lost a brutal three-game series to the lowly Milwaukee Brewers in between their intracity set-tos (by last Saturday they'd lost four in a row, all of them in the opponents' last at-bat), they still seemed spirited and confident around the batting cage Sunday, with Baker helping to keep things loose. I was left with the impression that these two series had been good for both teams, reawakening the Sox and alerting the Cubs to how much more difficult the second half will be, when they won't be catching teams by surprise. Neither club entered the week in first place, but that won't keep me from this prediction: both teams will make the playoffs, and after that--with Buehrle rejoining Colon and Loaiza at the head of the Sox staff and Wood and Prior anchoring the Cubs--anything can happen. Which is as rash as I'm prepared to be just now.