White Sox 1, Astros 0
They went about their business in the dugout as if nothing much awaited them on the field at Minute Maid Park in the next few moments, just another inning among the thousands that make up a season. They grabbed their gloves from the benches, ascended the dugout steps and jogged to their positions. It was the bottom of the ninth inning of a one-run game, and the Chicago White Sox were trying to ignore the fact they were three precious outs away from their franchise's first World Series title since 1917.
There would be a base runner and a bunt, to remind the White Sox they still had work to do, and there was a brilliant play by a shortstop diving into the stands, to remind them of how beautiful it all was. But 88 years of history was building up within this finite moment, and it needed somewhere to go.
And suddenly the ball was on the ground, headed toward the shortstop, and then it was in the first baseman's glove, and their cool exterior faded, and the White Sox rushed past those Houston Astros players who wanted to disappear into a hole, and they amassed near the pitcher's mound, grabbing each other and holding on.
The champions of baseball hail from the South Side of Chicago following the White Sox's 1-0 victory Wednesday night in Game 4 of the World Series. A series that was thought to be so evenly matched, so full of dramatic, seven-game potential, was really not so even at all. The White Sox swept it in four games, all of them close. But not that close.
"This has been an unbelievable season," White Sox first baseman Paul Konerko said. "Chalk one up for the little guys. We're a bunch of low-maintenance guys who fight you every day. And now we're number one."
Wednesday night's was a game that careened through one scoreless inning after another -- authored by starting pitchers Brandon Backe and Freddy Garcia -- in search of one clutch hit. That hit finally came in the top of the eighth, when Jermaine Dye, later named the series' most valuable player, poked a single up the middle against Astros closer Brad Lidge, scoring Willie Harris from third base with the game's only run.
Securing the victory in the bottom of the ninth, with closer Bobby Jenks on the mound, would require two excellent plays by shortstop Juan Uribe. First, he went all the way into the stands to catch a foul pop from pinch hitter Chris Burke for the second out. Then, as the moment built to the point of bursting, he made a fine running, lunging play on Orlando Palmeiro's slow roller, gloving the ball and firing to first to nip Palmeiro by an eyelash. It was over.
"All I can say for the South Side," said veteran outfielder Carl Everett, delivering a message to a city split between the Cubs and White Sox, "is we're the number-one side now. North side, you're behind us now."
The White Sox had waited 88 years to bring a World Series title to Chicago, but their march through October was accomplished with near-record speed. They lost only once all postseason, winning 11 of 12 games. Since the three-tiered playoff system began in 1995, only the 1999 New York Yankees matched their 11-1 record, and with eight straight postseason wins, they equaled the record set by last year's Boston Red Sox.
In late September, the White Sox were labeled chokers, as what had once been a 15-game lead in the AL Central division was whittled down to 11/2 games by the hard-charging Cleveland Indians. But going back to the final weekend of the season, these "chokers" won 16 of their final 17 games.
"We played the best baseball we played all year, in the playoffs," Konerko said. "And not many teams can say that."
It was a charmed life the White Sox lived this month, to be sure, full of victories built upon fortuitous twists of fate and outright thievery. Opposing aces fell lame at their feet. Umpires bought their cheesy acting jobs. And every bounce, kick and roll went their way.
But in uncanny fashion, the White Sox seemed to turn each of those breaks into another hit, another run, another win.
The White Sox's big break Wednesday night came when Astros Manager Phil Garner lifted Backe after the seventh inning in favor of pinch hitter Jeff Bagwell, whose bum shoulder prevents him from playing the field and who probably would not have been on the Astros' roster were he not the face of the franchise.
"I didn't want to do it," Garner said of the decision to lift Backe, "but you've got to try to put a run on the board."
Bagwell grounded out weakly to second to end the inning, and into the game came Lidge, still bearing the scars from the traumatic home runs that cost the Astros Game 5 of the NLCS and Game 2 of the World Series.
Harris, pinch-hitting for Garcia, led off the eighth by lining a single to left. He was sacrificed to second, and moved to third on a ground out. On a 1-1 count, Lidge threw a slider over the middle of the plate, and Dye, shortening his swing to maximize his contact, poked a single up the middle. Harris crossed the plate as the stadium grew silent.
"Decent breaking ball," Lidge said. "It found a hole."
One night after the Astros suffered a devastating, 14-inning loss in Game 3 -- the longest game in World Series history, and for the Astros, the most awful -- everyone still showed up at Minute Maid Park, and the players scratched and clawed, and the fans rose to their feet and roared from time to time. But their hearts weren't in it anymore.
That the Astros would go down so meekly -- they were 0 for 20 with runners in scoring position going back to Tuesday night's fourth inning -- was a surprise to anyone who saw them vanquish the St. Louis Cardinals in the NLCS, or who felt the pride that swelled within the stadium during the first World Series games ever in the state of Texas.
But that team in the other dugout, the White Sox, they were charmed, and they were good. So good, neither the Astros nor history itself could have had any idea what they were up against.