After three straight years of finishing second to the Minnesota Twins in the American League Central Division, Chicago White Sox General Manager Kenny Williams decided to change the team's focus from power to pitching and defense.
"We've had a desire for a number of years to put pitching first, defense second and have an offense that can score against you in a number of ways," Williams said. "[Twins GM] Terry Ryan's teams in Minnesota have been kicking our [butt] for a number of years, so if you can't beat 'em, join 'em."
The result: The White Sox -- who begin a four-game series against the Baltimore Orioles tonight at Camden Yards -- rank just 12th in hitting among 14 AL teams. Yet they have the best record in baseball (65-35) and an 111/2-game lead over the Twins. Barring catastrophe, they will make their first playoff appearance in five years.
Catcher A.J. Pierzynski spent six seasons with the Twins. Now in his first year with the White Sox, Pierzynski can see a difference in this year's roster.
"Their team was always a better team with more talent, but we believed in ourselves more," he said. "We believed we could find a way to beat them. We believed we could do little things better, get guys over better and if we kept the White Sox in the park we could win."
After the 2004 season, when the team finished 83-79 after losing right fielder Magglio Ordonez and designated hitter Frank Thomas to injuries for a large chunk of the season, Williams put his plan in motion.
Ordonez left to sign with the Detroit Tigers and in a trade that benefited both teams, left fielder Carlos Lee was dealt to Milwaukee for Scott Podsednik. Lee was hitting .269 through Wednesday, but Podsednik has stolen 51 bases and is credited with changing the dynamics of the offense.
Another addition was second baseman Tadahito Iguchi, in his first season in the majors after eight years playing in Japan. Iguchi is hitting .272 in the second spot in the order, drawing praise from Williams and Manager Ozzie Guillen for his willingness to sacrifice himself for the sake of the team.
The White Sox haven't lost all their power; they ranked fourth in the AL in home runs through Wednesday, led by first baseman Paul Konerko's 22.
The biggest improvement in the team, however, has come on the mound. Through Wednesday, Chicago ranked first in the AL in ERA (3.66), third in home runs allowed (99) and fifth in strikeouts (634). Last season's team ERA of 4.91 was 12th in the AL.
At the top of the rotation stands Mark Buehrle, who started the All-Star Game for the AL and was credited with the win. Buehrle will take the mound Monday afternoon at Camden Yards with 11 victories and a 2.96 ERA. He has pitched at least six innings in his past 49 starts.
But the biggest surprise in the rotation is Jon Garland. Projected to be the number five starter after winning 12 games in each of his last three seasons, Garland is 15-4 and on track for the AL Cy Young Award.
After Buehrle and Garland comes Freddy Garcia, whose 10-4 record makes Chicago the only AL team to have three 10-game winners in its rotation.
"Their pitching has been outstanding," said Boston Red Sox Manager Terry Francona. "They have speed. The team concept has benefited them. Things are working. They are enjoying themselves immensely, they should be."
Guillen, the feisty former shortstop who played for Chicago from 1985-97, has received much of the credit for the team's turnaround this season, only his second as manager.
"Ozzie has always been great with people," said Hall of Fame catcher Carlton Fisk, who played with Guillen from 1985-93. "One of the best things about him is also maybe one of the worst things about him. He is not afraid to say anything to anybody if it is on his mind. Sometimes it is great, sometimes it may hit the wrong nerve. If it does, he is man enough to discuss it with you so that, I think, is what people like about him the most."
Guillen, 41, was never shy to express his opinion as a player, and he takes a similar approach as manager. He is intolerant of mental errors, which recent White Sox teams were prone to make.
"Base running is the biggest [thing] we've definitely fixed. The last few years we've run into a lot of stupid outs," said center fielder Aaron Rowand.
ESPN analyst Steve Stone, who won a Cy Young Award with the Orioles 25 years ago, lives in Chicago and has seen many White Sox games. He agrees with Rowand's assessment.
"They seem to do exactly what it takes to win instead of a team that at times in the past that would self-destruct defensively and do just what it takes to lose," he said. "Something I heard a lot in Baltimore was the good teams take the game away in the seventh, eighth and ninth inning. I think you have seen with this White Sox team they are one of the good teams because they will take away the game late."
The White Sox have cooled somewhat after a hot start. They won 17 games in April and 18 in May and June but are just 12-11 this month. The team's ERA has crept up recently and they've had some sloppy defensive efforts, including a three-error display Tuesday night in Kansas City.
Despite their large lead, there are some obstacles ahead. Injuries are again becoming an issue; Thomas is on the disabled list because of problems with his surgically repaired ankle. It is not known when or if he'll be able to return this season. Third baseman Joe Crede is playing with a herniated disc, and closer Dustin Hermanson also has back problems.
The schedule also gets tougher next month. On Aug. 8, Chicago starts a 15-game stretch in which they play only the New York Yankees, Boston and Minnesota.
"We're not looking at the schedule," Williams said, "we are looking at how we are going to play today."