Big bangs put shocked Sox in early hole
CHICAGO -- There's a special feature on the monstrous scoreboard that looms behind the deepest outfield walls at US Cellular Field. Fireworks crackle and soar toward the heavens every time a White Sox player hits a home run.
The defending world champions from Boston must have felt as if they were at the Esplanade on the Fourth of July yesterday when the White Sox crushed five homers in an embarrassingly easy 14-2 rout of the Red Sox in the first game of their best-of-five Division Series.
''We're a little shellshocked," said Sox first baseman Kevin Millar. ''There were a lot of home runs and a lot of fireworks. But we just have to shower this game off and be ready tomorrow."
So there. October baseball is back, and the Sox' title defense is off to a rocky start as a Nation turns its lonely eyes to David Wells, a 42-year-old lefthander with a history of peak performance in the big games.
The same cannot be said of Matt Clement, a talented righty who has yet to demonstrate that he can pitch well when it matters most. Clement coughed up five runs in the first inning yesterday and overall yielded eight runs in 3 1/3 innings before he was mercifully sent to the showers after surrendering his third homer with one out in the fourth. Compounding the collapse, Clement is in line to start a fifth and deciding game should the Sox and Sox split the first four contests.
Meanwhile, Chicago righty Jose Contreras held the Red Sox to two runs on eight hits over 7 2/3 innings. A couple of winters ago, Red Sox general manager Theo Epstein lost Contreras in a bidding war with the Yankees, and yesterday Sox fans finally saw what all the fuss was about.
''That's the best we've seen all year," said Johnny Damon.
Red Sox fans probably don't need to be reminded that this group of vagabonds has been down this road before. They lost the first two games of a best-of-five against Oakland in 2003 but rallied to win three straight and advance to the American League Championship Series. Most famously, the Sox trailed the Yankees in last year's ALCS, three games to none, and did what never had been done in more than a century of postseason baseball: They came back from 0-3 to win a series.
''That was a long time ago," warned Red Sox manager Terry Francona. ''It was a different team. Last year doesn't matter. What matters is how we bounce back tomorrow and I don't have a doubt that we will bounce back."
Wells has made 15 postseason starts and owns a 10-3 record. He would have been the logical choice to pitch Game 1, but the Sox were still fighting for a playoff spot on the final day of the regular season and thus were unable to set up their rotation for maximum benefit. That's how Clement wound up getting the ball yesterday.
It was a catastrophe. He looked like he didn't want to throw a pitch. He constantly shook off signs from catcher Jason Varitek and batters often stepped out during the pauses. When Clement did throw, his location was off by considerable margins. The results were disastrous.
Clement hit two of the first three batters he faced. After one of them scored on a fielder's choice, and another on a single by Aaron Rowand, A.J. Pierzynski crushed a three-run homer to left-center to make it 5-0. Paul Konerko hit a solo homer in the third, and No. 9 batter Juan Uribe blasted a two-run shot into the bleachers in the fourth to knock Clement out of the game.
Speaking in a corridor outside the Sox clubhouse after the loss, Clement said, ''I have no excuses, I have no reasons. I pitched bad. It's no fun."
The Red Sox bled Contreras for a pair of runs in the fourth, but the game was already out of hand, and Contreras was sharper than the Sox ever had seen him.
''We saw a much more mature pitcher," said Francona.
''His splitter was devastating," said Varitek.
Contreras's victory was the first home postseason win by a White Sox pitcher since Early Wynn beat the Dodgers in the first game of the 1959 World Series.
In an effort to save top relievers Jonathan Papelbon and Mike Timlin, Francona sent Chad Bradford, Jeremi Gonzalez, and Bronson Arroyo to the mound for mop-up duty. Gonzalez gave up four runs, including a homer, and Arroyo gave up the final two runs and the fifth homer.
He may surface again if the series goes five games, but it's difficult to imagine the Sox giving the ball back to Clement. Arroyo or Wells on three days' rest would seem to be better options.
But they have some work to do first.
''We got pounded today," said Varitek. ''We just have to be ready to come back tomorrow. We have to be ready to go out and play and have a short memory."
''I hope they've got blisters on their hands after hitting all those home runs," said Millar.
White Sox manager Ozzie Guillen said, ''I guess when you play the world champs, you get pumped up a little bit."
Indeed. Five homers. A dazzling performance by the starter. And 40,717 happy fans singing as they filed out of the big yard. The White Sox were pumped and jacked, and they have new confidence when they step in against Wells and the Red Sox tonight.