The White Sox' season hit rock bottom (one hopes) with last week's brutal six-game home stand. Mark Buehrle, the supposed ace of the five-man starting rotation, bookended the set, losing the first and last games. He had only one bad inning in the opener against Texas, but that five-run third gave the Rangers all they needed in the 10-3 win. Every inning was an ordeal in the closer against the Minnesota Twins. He left in the sixth charged with seven runs, and brushed past pitching coach Don Cooper in the dugout to head straight for the clubhouse.
It was a team collapse. The Sox lost 12 of 15 games, going back to before the All-Star break, and everything seemed to abandon them, including last year's luck. Of the starters, only Jon Garland pitched well, winning the first two games the Sox won after the break. Otherwise, when the team hit the starters got hit harder, and on the rare occasions when the starters pitched well the Sox didn't hit. Typical was Jose Contreras's loss in the middle of the three-game series with the Twins: he got beat 4-3 on a pop-fly homer by slap-hitting shortstop Jason Bartlett. The sweep at the hands of the Twins actually tied the two teams at 59-41, a distant eight and a half games behind the Detroit Tigers in the American League Central and a half-game behind the New York Yankees in the wild-card race. As the Twins congratulated each other on the field, some in the upper deck booed the Sox and shouted, "You suck!"
To check the pulse of Sox fans, I went down to Bridgeport last Friday to watch the first game of their road trip on TV. Typical of the way the Sox' luck was running, they faced the Baltimore Orioles' young left-hander Erik Bedard. I'd seen him pitch against the Sox last year and been impressed just watching him warm up: he showed a mid-90s fastball and an array of sharp breaking pitches. That mid-May contest ended the Sox' season-long streak of leading at some point in every game. This season, Bedard had already mastered them at Sox Park, giving up a mere two hits and one run in a victory earlier in July.
I decided to start with dinner at Schaller's Pump, located across Halsted from the 11th Ward office. The dailies always identify Schaller's as a prominent Sox bar, but what do they know? It turned out to be less a Sox bar than the land that time forgot, the menu looking unchanged since 1959, the last year before last year that the Sox won the pennant. The game was on all three TVs, but the crowd of oldsters seemed more intent on catching up with one another than on watching it.
The Sox fell behind in the first inning in a manner that made one think there might be something to their bad luck. The O's Miguel Tejada hit a two-out, broken-bat double down the left-field line to score a runner from first. Of course, it didn't help that Pablo Ozuna in left field botched the relay throw to Juan Uribe. The Sox' Brian Anderson doubled in the third, eliciting a few claps at the bar, and scored on an Ozuna single and a sacrifice fly by Tadahito Iguchi, but the Sox went on to leave the bases loaded. Sox starter Freddy Garcia, looking as ever as if he'd just rolled out of bed in his White Sox pajamas, gave the lead right back, allowing a homer to Brian Roberts on a decent but ill-fated curve, then yet another two-out RBI double by Tejada. This one was Garcia's fault, coming on an 0-2 fastball on the outside corner that Tejada swatted down the right-field line.
With the apathetic crowd settling into increasingly maudlin standards like "As Time Goes By," that was all I could stand. I headed up Halsted to Puffer's, my personal favorite Bridgeport bar. On the way, Garcia gave up another run to make it 4-1.
At Puffer's the game was on, with sound, but as the Sox continued to struggle the regulars lost interest. In the third inning, Jim Thome doubled off the right-field wall of Camden Yards to put runners on second and third with one out, but Paul Konerko and Jermaine Dye stranded them. Worse yet, Konerko fouled a pitch off his shin and eventually left the game, replaced by backup first baseman Ross Gload. The Sox had the same situation in the sixth, but got only one run--on an Anderson groundout. The biggest commotion of the night came on a play at the video golf game. "Oooh! Nice shot!" shouted one guy. Those of us watching the TVs were sullen. I looked at the board above the bar and asked the keep what a Quebec white ale called La Fin du Monde was like. He shrugged.
"Give me one," I said. "It suits me."
Bedard left with a 4-2 lead, and Baltimore closer Chris Ray came on to finish up. But Scott Podsednik and Rob MacKowiak led off with pinch-hit singles to left and Iguchi bunted to again put runners on second and third with one out. But because the next batter wouldn't be Konerko but Gload, Ray walked Thome intentionally and filled the bases. Thanks to his name, pointy face, incessant chewing, and baggy pants, there's something of a Faulknerian, Snopesian quality to Gload, though he's from Brooklyn. He's enjoyed success in the highest minors, but never at the big-league level. Yet he made Ray throw strikes, and instead Ray threw three straight balls. Gload took a strike, then fouled off a fastball to fill the count. The next pitch was another fastball, on the outside corner, and he went with it, hitting the ball down the left-field line. "Go! Go!" fans shouted as the Baltimore left fielder chased it, and the ball dropped just over the fence for a grand slam. By that time the golf game had been abandoned, and everyone in the bar was clapping and shouting. Closer Bobby Jenks pitched the bottom half, and the relief when he got the last out felt like one of last season's playoff game--everyone breathed comfortably for the first time in hours.
The Sox of last season, who took advantage of every slight edge opponents gave them, would have turned that win into a reversal of fortune, but nothing's coming easy this year. Garland pitched Saturday, but he'd come down with a sudden summer cold and he got knocked around. Even so, a seven-run third led to a 13-11 Sox win. Sunday, the unreliable Javier Vazquez twice gave up leads, but the Sox rallied to take a 7-6 advantage on Dye's three-run homer. Then Jenks, the Sox' one rock-solid element all season, blew the save and lost the game 8-7. It wasn't the end of the world, but it put another dent in the psyche of the Sox and their fans.
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/AP Photo/Chris Gardner.