South Siders take giant step forward

South Siders take giant step forward

CHICAGO -- The late Jim Croce wrote, famously, lyrically, that "the South Side of Chicago is the baddest part of town."

But right now, the South Side of Chicago is the BASEBALL part of town. The White Sox, historically seen by their loyal supporters as the team of blue-collar Chicago, the team of the city's "real" baseball fans, the team of big-shouldered, dogged, determined, the-city-that-works Chicago, are back.

Following an 88-year intermission, the White Sox, the ChiSox, the Pale Hose, all of them, have once again won a postseason series. And what a splendid victory this 3-0 AL Division Series was in all of its many aspects. Not only did the White Sox dethrone the defending World Series champion Boston Red Sox, they swept them.

There was no fluke here, no accident, no bizarre bounce, no incorrect umpire's call that influenced this decision. This was the White Sox being better than the Red Sox in all phases of the game.

"They pitched, hit and ran the bases better than us," Red Sox manager Terry Francona said. "They outplayed us. That's why they won."

Boston was the favorite, but not among the people who understood what the postseason was. Pitching and defense win here, and on those two counts, this Chicago team was better than this Boston team, three games to none.

The clinching 5-3 victory Friday night had all the elements that won this series for the White Sox. Freddy Garcia had a slightly better start than Tim Wakefield. But the pitching star was Orlando "El Duque" Hernandez, nominally a starter, on the bubble for even making the postseason roster. He inherited a bases-loaded, no-out jam in the sixth in a 4-3 game, and escaped without a scratch. He escaped like he was Harry Houdini, bound in chains with no visible means of escape, emerging a few minutes later like it was a day at the office.

"I don't think we've gotten the respect that this team deserves," Hernandez said later, through his interpreter, Ozzie Guillen Jr., "but little by little, we're earning that respect and hopefully we will go all the way."

The White Sox have a little chip on their shoulder, but they're not obnoxious about it. And they have a point. They had the best record in the American League and all that got them was a decided underdog status against Boston. (And if they play the Yankees in the AL Championship Series, they'll be the underdogs there, too. You can bet on it, although, of course, you shouldn't.)

The White Sox had the defensive edge, too. Typical was the diving stab of a smash by Trot Nixon that first baseman Paul Konerko made in the eighth inning.

"I got a real good first step on it, for a change," Konerko said.

See that? All this and they're modest, too. Konerko had the biggest hit of this game, a two-run homer in the sixth that brought the White Sox what turned out to be a decisive 4-2 lead. For all the talk about Boston's imposing lineup -- and the talk wasn't even exaggerated -- the White Sox outscored them, 24-9, in this series.

The rookie, Bobby Jenks, was asked to save two games, and he saved two games. How could manager Ozzie Guillen turn over the crucial closer role to a mere rookie? Apparently because the mere rookie could do this job. And by the way, the manager was on just as much of a roll as his team was.

These Division Series winners, these sweepers of the mighty Red Sox, were the same White Sox who were referred to as "chokers" by their most avid critics when their AL Central lead dwindled from 15 games all the way down to 1 1/2. They weren't choking then, and they seem to be breathing just fine now, too.

Before this series started, you could see the White Sox winning, because the team with the better pitching is supposed to win in the postseason. But a sweep? Could Guillen have imagined this?

"No," the manager said Friday night, and then shifted gears. "Well, I would say 'yes,' because of the way we swing the bat, the way we come here to Boston to play. On the other side, I have a lot of confidence in my pitching staff and when you pitch good in the playoffs and execute, you should win.

"That's what we did. We pitched real well and we played against a tremendous ballclub. If you look at the lineup they are, you can't put any lineup better than those guys. Those guys, that's how good they are. Good thing everything was good for us and we win."

The White Sox players have been thoroughly schooled, whether they liked it or not, in the long-term frustrations of this franchise. They were smart enough to understand the frustration, but not get caught up in it. That kind of thing can weigh on you if you allow it to weigh on you. This has happened, you have seen it, to teams from a certain North Side operation. But these White Sox have moved beyond that.

"Like the Red Sox last year, I think blocking out what's happened to the organization in the past is key," Konerko said. "Because if you start thinking about failures or what other teams haven't done, you might try a little harder and put pressure on yourself and you'll carry that with you.

"This team is real loose. It starts with Ozzie and that's the way I look at it. This team is the 2005 White Sox. We're not trying to change what we see in the past, just trying to play the best we can and see what happens."

This may be just the beginning. The White Sox will have the home-field advantage for the AL Championship Series, no matter which opponent, the Angels or the Yankees, advances. The White Sox would have the home-field advantage for the World Series as well. If they pitch and play the way they did in this series, there is no reason to limit the possibilities.

A lot of White Sox fans have waited a long time, with great patience and perseverance, for something like this to happen. This is still two steps away from the ultimate prize, but if you look around Chicago, the South Side would once again be the place where an October baseball winner lives.

Mike Bauman is a national columnist for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.