Rivals try to downplay opening series

Rivals try to downplay opening series

CHICAGO -- It's just another game.

At least that's what the Cleveland Indians are saying about Sunday night's 2006 regular-season opener at U.S. Cellular Field.

It's just another series, one among the many a certain Chicago team must win in order to reach the playoffs once again. At least that's what the defending World Series champions believe, as the White Sox drive for a second straight title begins a little after 7 p.m. CT.

But the battle between the White Sox and Indians has once again become a rivalry that supersedes the quest for an American League Central crown. This 19-game competition in 2006 features two of the best teams in the American League.

Cleveland's amazing finish in 2005 really brought this rivalry back into intense focus, as the Indians closed from 15 back of the White Sox on Aug. 1 to 1 1/2 games behind as late as Sept. 24. In the midst of what would turn out to be one of the greatest seasons in franchise history, the White Sox pretty much heard nothing but praise for the Indians and the frequent usage of the word "choke" attached to their team down the stretch.

As the White Sox look back on those surreal final two months, along with their postseason domination, two points become crystal clear where Cleveland is concerned. Not only did the Indians not overtake the White Sox, but they didn't even reach the playoffs as the AL Wild Card.

"They had a great run, but they did not do what they had to do to get to the playoffs," said White Sox third baseman Joe Crede of the Indians. "So their season is done and over with, and it's already forgotten about.

"Yeah, they had a great second half. But you know, 93 wins, or however many they had, it wasn't good enough in 2005 for them."

The White Sox were a primary reason why 93 victories were not good enough for the Indians to reach the postseason. The South Siders won 14 of the 19 meetings between the two last year, including an incredible 9-1 record at Jacobs Field. Of those 14 White Sox victories, nine were decided by only one run. The White Sox started the 2005 campaign with a 1-0 victory over the Indians at home and began the second half with a 1-0 victory in Cleveland.

In fact, all eyes were fixed on that four-game series in Cleveland immediately after the All-Star break, with the Indians knowing they had to take at least three out of the four to even have a chance at making up its 11-game deficit. The White Sox swept through Cleveland, beating Kevin Millwood, C.C. Sabathia, Jake Westbrook and Scott Elarton, while allowing six total runs in the process.

Cleveland still held out playoff hopes into the 2005 season's final weekend, with three games against the American League Central champions, who were simply playing to take some momentum into the playoffs. The White Sox won two games by one run, and the final game by two runs, extending their winning streak to seven at Jacobs Field.

It was a bitter pill to swallow for a sizzling Cleveland team many thought could be the one to beat in the postseason.

"We just lost a lot of close games there at the end," said Cleveland starting pitcher Cliff Lee of the tight competition with the White Sox. "They ended up pulling those games out. That was pretty much the difference."

"Those games were interesting at the end, but we fell short," Cleveland right fielder Casey Blake added. "That was a weird experience. We weren't even considering winning our division. We were basically just focused on the Wild Card hunt. If we had been focused on them the whole time, maybe the outcome would have been different."

Despite last season's success, there are significant changes in both rosters for 2006. Players such as Coco Crisp, Millwood and Bob Howry no longer are in Cleveland, with Jason Michaels, Paul Byrd and Guillermo Mota taking their place.

Manager Ozzie Guillen was a big fan of Crisp, who always had great success against the White Sox, and recently told MLB.com that the Indians might not be as strong with the departure of the three players above. Those in the know believe the Indians could be primed for even greater success than their 93-win season.

One Cleveland supporter actually doubles as one of the biggest offseason acquisitions made by the White Sox. Jim Thome played parts of 12 Major League seasons with the Indians, an integral part of the 1995 and 1997 teams that went to the World Series. Thome credits the Indians for the way they have gone about the business of getting back into contention, under the leadership of general manager Mark Shapiro.

"From their end, they have turned the corner with the rebuilding process," Thome said. "I don't want to say they are going to win, because we are going to win, but they are successful.

"They've done a good job, they really have. They do things the right way over there, for sure."

Tribe players return the praise in kind. Blake says the White Sox appear to have improved on the team that won 110 games (including the postseason) in 2005. An underlying theme from both sides, though, is that there is far more to worry about than just one team -- especially in the AL Central.

Minnesota and Detroit both have pitching, a key ingredient for any contender. Even Kansas City has improved.

"Everybody is going to be looking at [the White Sox], but as far as putting more emphasis on those games, I don't think we can do that," Blake said. "We have to be ready to compete and be ready to battle. That's how you have to do that. You can't make the big games bigger."

"You don't get bonus points for beating Cleveland, no more than beating Kansas City or Detroit," White Sox general manager Ken Williams added. "I don't know that you can look at it that way."

But there's no denying the extra buzz when these teams get together. Crede points out the fun he had in a three-game series with Cleveland at U.S. Cellular, from Sept. 19-21. Both teams were in the playoff race, the stadium was full all three nights, and it didn't hurt that Crede hit a walk-off home run off David Riske to win the series' second game.

If that series alone didn't stoke the rivalry, then the final weekend in Cleveland did the trick. It all starts up again Sunday night.

Sure, neither team will be eliminated even if swept in the opening series. But in a division race certain to be tight once again, these head-to-head matchups are a little more than "just another game."

"It's going to be a big game," said Sabathia, who starts Opening Night for the Indians. "It's going to be a good series. We want to get off to a good start and set the tone."

"They will be the team to beat if they can play the same way they played in the second half all year long," Crede added. "It will be fun to see what happens. I'm sure they will be on top of their game, and we will be on top of ours, and it will make for a fun series the whole year."

Scott Merkin is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.