White Sox claim AL Central crown
Danks tosses gem, Thome hits monster homer to beat Twins
CHICAGO -- As recently as last Thursday, White Sox chairman Jerry Reinsdorf didn't think Tuesday night's celebration at U.S. Cellular Field would be possible.
But there was Reinsdorf standing in a jubilant White Sox clubhouse, champagne-stained and smiling, after his team's 1-0 victory over the Twins. Tuesday's tiebreaking Game No. 163 officially locked up the 2008 American League Central title for the White Sox, with the team clinching at home for the first time since 1993.
"After we got swept up there, I thought we were dead," said Reinsdorf, after watching his team's lone 1-0 victory this season. "We beat three different teams in three days. Thank God for the Kansas City Royals."
Reinsdorf, of course, was referring to the Royals' series victory this past weekend at the Metrodome, taking place while the Indians were taking two of three in Chicago from the White Sox, after the Twins swept three straight from the White Sox in Minnesota. That confluence of events involving the AL Central leaders, along with the South Siders' 8-2 victory over the Tigers in a makeup game on Monday, set up the first division tiebreaker played by either franchise.
It was a deciding contest befitting of the great rivalry and season-long battle fostered by these two teams, neither considered a strong contender for the playoffs when the season began. One poorly located pitch from Minnesota starter Nick Blackburn (11-11) to Jim Thome in the seventh inning resulted in the White Sox second postseason appearance during Ozzie Guillen's five-year tenure.
Thome crushed a 461-foot home run into the shrubbery just to the left of center off of Blackburn, the Twins' rookie hurler who allowed that lone run on four hits over 6 1/3 innings, and earned postgame plaudits from Guillen and the rest of his charges. The prolific slugger pumped his fist as he rounded first base, following one of the biggest home runs among the 541 he has launched during his illustrious career.
"I was lucky I got a pitch over the plate, but I knew I hit it pretty good," said Thome, who was in a 2-for-16 rut on the five-game homestand before his game-winning shot. "The way Blackburn was pitching, to get an opportunity like that off him was very special."
"Tonight kind of sums up the whole season for me," Blackburn said. "Make one mistake and it ends up out of the park."
Minnesota had a chance to grab the lead in the fifth when Michael Cuddyer led off with a double to left off of White Sox starter John Danks and moved to third on Delmon Young's fly ball to center fielder Ken Griffey. Cuddyer tried to come home on Brendan Harris' shallow fly ball to Griffey, but Griffey fired a perfect strike to catcher A.J. Pierzynski, who fielded Griffey's throw on the short hop and applied the tag, while taking the brunt of a collision with Cuddyer in his left shoulder. Cuddyer saw the ball coming out of the glove of the White Sox catcher and made a play to knock it loose, but somehow, Pierzynski held on.
"Coming down to it, that play, all I had to do was make a good throw," Griffey said. "The credit is all A.J. I put a two-hopper in there and he was able to get it and block the plate. That's the key there. He put his body on the line for us."
"I still don't know how I caught the ball. I really have no idea," Pierzynski said. "I really didn't think I did. I couldn't feel it in my glove, so when I turned, I thought it went flying."
Winner take all
|The results of the six previous one-game tiebreakers in MLB history.|
|Sept. 30, 2008||AL Central||White Sox 1, Twins 0|
|Oct. 1, 2007||NL Wild Card||Rockies 9, Padres 8, 13 innings|
|Oct. 4, 1999||NL Wild Card||Mets 5, Reds 0|
|Sept. 28, 1998||NL Wild Card||Cubs 5, Giants 3|
|Oct. 2, 1995||AL West||Mariners 9, Angels 1|
|Oct. 6, 1980||NL West||Astros 7, Dodgers 1|
|Oct. 2, 1978||AL East||Yankees 5, Red Sox 4|
The slim advantage provided by Thome's immense power and the Griffey-Pierzynski combination on defense was enough for Danks (12-9), who allowed two hits and really no other hard-hit balls. Danks matched his longest outing of the year by going eight, striking out four and walking three. He threw 103 pitches working on three days' rest, before the left-hander gave way to closer Bobby Jenks.
Jenks retired the side in order, a common theme on the night, culminated by Brian Anderson's diving catch in center to rob Alexi Casilla of at least a single. A sense of déjà vu then began to take place, as the celebration began at U.S. Cellular, among 40,354 in attendance who were doing their part by wearing dark colors for the "Sox Pride" blackout.
Last Thursday, it was Casilla who delivered the game-winning single to complete the sweep, setting off a World Series-like celebration at the Metrodome. Now, it was the White Sox doing the hugging, screaming and pouring of champagne, coming back onto the field to include their supportive fan base, with general manager Ken Williams addressing the crowd and telling them they were as loud as either of the home games for the 2005 World Series.
Some of the White Sox players mildly objected to the Twins' celebration last Thursday, making a vow to not let it happen again on their home field. On Tuesday, it was the South Siders completing their third straight win to set up a playoff matchup at Tampa Bay and then expressing a healthy dose of respect for their vanquished opponents.
"We kind of joked in the sixth inning how Commissioner [Bud] Selig would call and say this was a tie game," said White Sox pitcher Mark Buehrle with a smile. "Just combine both teams and say the Twins/White Sox would go to face the Rays. Take the best from both. It really seemed like nobody wanted to win. But we came out ahead and that's all that matters."
"At the finish you can't describe," Guillen said. "It's just something you really fight for all year long."
Scott Merkin is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.