South Side, South Side | Sports | Chicago Reader

South Side, South Side 

There's no denying who's the best baseball team in town this year.

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One of the great joys of baseball, Harry Caray used to say, is its unpredictability. White Sox fans have felt that joy this season. Accustomed to the team's hard-hitting ways, which can be traced from the Frank Thomas era back to the Winnin' Ugly 1983 team and beyond to the '77 South Side Hit Men, most fans tended to be skeptical about the shift by general manager Ken Williams and manager Ozzie Guillen to a roster built around pitching and defense. Yet the Sox entered this workweek with the best record in baseball at 31-13; they were making believers not only of their opponents but of their notoriously stubborn supporters.

High-stepping Scott Podsednik, traded for the popular slugger "El Caballo" Carlos Lee, came over from the Milwaukee Brewers with his classic long black stockings and gave the team the speedy leadoff man it needed to fuel a light-hitting attack. The surpassingly broad-shouldered Tadahito Iguchi arrived from Japan as a number-two hitter with pop. Though catcher A.J. Pierzynski showed up under a cloud after wearing out his welcome in San Francisco, he turned out to be sound fundamentally, to call a good game, and to display the level, efficient swing typical of products of the Minnesota Twins. Pitcher Dustin Hermanson also came over from the Giants and soon claimed the closer role from Shingo Takatsu. Of the holdovers, fifth starter Jon Garland finally made good on his considerable promise by winning his first eight games, and ace Mark Buehrle pitched the best baseball of his life. The Sox didn't even miss Thomas, who continued to rehab from ankle surgery.

By contrast, Cubs fans who dreaded this season were confirmed in every dour prediction. The team had lacked a leadoff man since the departure of Kenny Lofton after the 2003 playoff run, but general manager Jim Hendry again failed to address that critical need over the winter, except to bring in the unproven Jerry Hairston Jr. in a trade for Sammy Sosa. Hendry allowed Moises Alou to leave and pegged Todd Hollandsworth to move up to starting left fielder, but the promotion depleted the Cubs bench. The weakness of the bench was revealed by injuries to middle infielders Nomar Garciaparra (always a health risk) and Todd Walker. Worst of all, though almost every Cubs fan believed the team needed a new bullpen closer after LaTroy Hawkins struggled in the role last year while Joe Borowski rehabbed from arm surgery, Hendry went with what the Cubs had. Then Hawkins imploded early in the season and Borowski was set back with a broken arm. Beset by the dubious bullpen and an anemic attack, starters Carlos Zambrano and Mark Prior struggled to win even when they pitched well. Meanwhile, Kerry Wood went down with a tender shoulder. The Cubs were 18-20 going into last weekend's series with the Sox at Wrigley Field and already six games behind the Saint Louis Cardinals in the NL Central Division. Williams had a plan and stuck to it. Hendry seemed aimless. He'd replaced Sosa with Jeromy Burnitz, a slightly younger, slightly quicker player with the same propensity to strike out--his uppercut swing is made for 16-inch softball--and a much more erratic career.

The city series confirmed the state of the two teams. Friday dawned bright and gorgeous without a cloud in the sky and with the wind blowing in--perfect weather for the aged Greg Maddux to pitch in. Unfortunately, it was also perfect for the Sox' "small ball" offense, which drew first blood in the third on an error, a sacrifice, and a hit by Podsednik that bounded off Hairston's glove at second into short center. Maddux had only one bad inning, the fifth, in which he gave up three runs, but that damage was more than enough. Sox starter Freddy Garcia, his pitching motion resembling a catapult, allowed only an unearned run in the seventh, and the Sox got that back on a homer by newcomer Jermaine Dye, who's just beginning to come out of a season-long slump. The final score was 5-1. Beginning with batting practice, when Guillen created more of a stir around the hitting cage than Cubs manager Dusty Baker, the Sox seemed alive and the Cubs dead. The same with their fans. Though outnumbered, Sox fans were much more vocal than Cubs fans all afternoon.

Saturday produced a terrific pitchers' duel between the Cubs' excitable Carlos Zambrano and the Sox' more placid Jose Contreras--two big, hard-throwing righties. The Cubs scored first this time, stealing a page from the Sox' new playbook in the fourth inning when Neifi Perez singled, stole second, and came home on a hit by Burnitz. Zambrano hurled a one-hit shutout through seven innings, but then left, having suffered from a sore arm in his last start. The Cubs' bullpen predictably gave it all away, with two runs scoring when Corey Patterson failed to make a diving catch of a low liner by Paul Konerko. Baker eventually had to bring in--and then take out--Hawkins, and Cubs fans booed harder with every pitching change. The Cubs rallied, but Hermanson shut them down in the ninth for a 5-3 victory.

As if to amplify the completely different directions the two teams were going in, the Sox called up pitching phenom Brandon McCarthy to make his major-league debut Sunday. McCarthy's ballyhooed Cubs counterpart, Angel Guzman, also was in town over the weekend--so doctors could look at his sore arm. Thrown into the fire against the Cubs in Wrigley Field with the wind blowing out, McCarthy looked terrific. At 6-foot-7 and 190 pounds, with a motion all knees and elbows and jug ears that looked like the widest part of his body, he held the Cubs to a single run through five innings, a homer by backup catcher Henry Blanco. Iguchi and Dye, meanwhile, were homering off Prior to give the Sox the lead. The wind, however, favored the Cubs' bashers, and in the sixth they took advantage of it. McCarthy plunked Derrek Lee to lead off the inning, Patterson added a single off reliever Luis Vizcaino, and Jason Dubois--a power-hitting minor-league phenom who's struggled to get the rookie-phobic Baker to put him in the lineup--pounded a three-run homer, the kind of big blow the Cubs count on. Prior allowed another homer to Konerko in the ninth, but otherwise finished in style to claim a 4-3 victory and save the Cubs some face. Even so, the weekend left no doubt who was the best team in town.

Standing at his locker having a light beer after Friday's victory, Konerko explained the Sox' success by saying, "Pitching is the name of the game." That was something, considering that he's the epitome of the club's old lumbering, power-hitting ways. Asked how the team had bought into the change in philosophy, Konerko said, "Everybody who has been here was ready for a change. We were kind of tired of the old way. Everybody at the end of last season pretty much said, 'Yeah, let's try something different, because this isn't working.'" Salsa music played in the Sox locker room, whether as a playful homage to the departed Sosa I can't say. I only know that the Cubs locker room was dead quiet as sportswriters waited for someone, anyone, to come out and explain what had happened to the team that just over a season ago was five outs from the World Series.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Jonathan Daniel--Getty Images.

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