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Sunday, September 28, 2008
White Sox desperately turn to Buehrle to prolong their season

By Phil Rogers
Special to ESPN.com

The Chicago White Sox aren't dead. Not yet. But like the Mexican bobcat, the harpy eagle and the gray bat, they are on the endangered species list.

Entering the final day of the regular season -- the last scheduled day, anyway -- the White Sox, Minnesota Twins, New York Mets and Milwaukee Brewers continue to try to grab one of the two elusive spots in the playoff field.

AL CENTRAL
TEAM RECORD GB
Minnesota 87-74 --
Chicago 86-74 ½
NL WILD CARD
TEAM RECORD GB
Milwaukee 89-72 --
New York 89-72 --
For more on the races, see Hunt for October. And here are the tiebreaker scenarios.
Among those teams, the White Sox have put themselves on the most complicated path toward October play. They also have blown the biggest late lead of this group, a margin of 2½ games that they held as recently as Monday.

"If we lose this thing, I'm going to ask [team owner] Jerry Reinsdorf to give me the private plane," White Sox manager Ozzie Guillen said Saturday. "I don't have the guts to look at the people's faces in O'Hare Airport or Midway after this season. … I will be embarrassed, and I will be disappointed about seeing the people in the airport, seeing their faces, because we let them down."

The White Sox have lost five games in a row to Minnesota and Cleveland and overall are 10-18 down the stretch. They were passed by a Twins team that has gone 13-20 since Aug. 22 and somehow has survived a stretch in which the schedule had it on the road for 24 of 30 games before the last week of the season.

If the Twins can beat Kansas City on Sunday, a feat they couldn't manage Friday or Saturday, the White Sox will have to win three games in a row to make the playoffs -- against Cleveland (minus Cliff Lee) on Sunday, Detroit on Monday and Minnesota on Tuesday, all at U.S. Cellular Field.

Mark Buehrle

Buehrle

Mark Buehrle, the anchor of the White Sox's pitching staff since 2001, will work on three days' rest against Cleveland's Bryan Bullington on Sunday. Simultaneously in Minnesota, the Twins' Scott Baker will face Brandon Duckworth, whom the Royals opted to start because Zack Greinke already had thrown more than 200 innings this season.

In the National League's version of knockout, Oliver Perez and CC Sabathia will pitch on three days' rest for the Mets and Brewers, respectively, against the Marlins' Scott Olsen and the Cubs' Angel Guzman.

"The fact of the matter is, if somebody tells you in spring training: 'After 161 games, you're tied. Would you take it?'" said Dale Sveum, Milwaukee's interim manager. "I think 30 teams in baseball would. You approach it like it's the seventh game of the World Series. That's basically what it is."

It shouldn't have come to this for the White Sox. That's what general manager Kenny Williams was thinking when he sat by himself on the end of the dugout bench at the Metrodome before Thursday's game, which reliever Joe Nathan later called the best contest he's ever played in -- a 7-6, 10-inning win by the Twins, who had trailed 6-1 at one point.

As Williams looked out to the field under the white, Teflon-coated roof, his eye was drawn to blue banners hanging from a giant curtain above the upper-deck seats in right-center field. The banners listed Minnesota's previous championships, including American League Central titles in 2002, '03, '04 and '06.

The thought of the Twins' having positioned themselves to add an '08 title to the list clearly was torturing the White Sox general manager. He wondered aloud how many days the Sox had spent in first place since 2002. He said he couldn't believe they'd been there so often yet won only the one title in 2005.

Here's how many days each team has spent in first place during the past seven seasons:

White Sox, 464
Twins, 443

Unfortunately, time of possession is not a playoff tiebreaker.

Because they have done a better job of drafting players and developing talent, the Twins consistently have been able to improve their teams over the course of seasons. They had led for only 45 days before September in 2003 but won the division; were never in first place until Sept. 28 in '06 but won the division, and this season were in first place only 39 days before September.

The White Sox have developed a reputation for being soft, and that reputation will only be bolstered if they don't dig a way out of their current hole. Given their ongoing pitching meltdown, it's hard to see how they'll do that.

Guillen's team allowed 19 runs in getting swept in Minnesota and 23 in the first two games against Cleveland. He's made 17 pitching changes in those games -- including 10 on Friday and Saturday -- as his plan to bank this season on his three top starters has imploded.

Guillen gambled by using Javier Vazquez, Buehrle and Gavin Floyd on three days' rest in consecutive games Sept. 18-20, juggling the staff so he could get Floyd a start in Minnesota rather than No. 5 starter Clayton Richard.

Beginning with those games, Buehrle, Vazquez and Floyd have gone 1-5 in seven starts, allowing 51 hits and 34 runs in 37 innings. Buehrle is the horse of the staff -- the guy who could distinguish himself Sunday -- but Guillen faces more migraine-inducing decisions Monday and Tuesday if the White Sox aren't extinct by then.

A pair of stallions

Sabathia will try to do for the Brewers on Sunday what Johan Santana did for the Mets on Saturday -- pitch a gem despite working on short rest.

CC Sabathia

Sabathia

Johan Santana

Santana

Unlike Santana, Sabathia will make his third consecutive start on short rest. That's a run that would be a strain on any pitcher, even one who has gone 10-2 with a 1.78 ERA in the two months since he was traded from Cleveland.

"I feel fine,'' Sabathia told the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel on Saturday. "It's been up and down, but we've hung in there, and now we're in a position if we win again we'll be in a good spot.''

Sabathia has worked a career-high 244 innings (although he pitched 256 1/3 innings overall in 2007, including three postseason starts). He knows that some analysts think the workload will catch up to him after he signs his monstrous free-agent contract this winter, but he believes he can carry the load without repercussions.

"I think I was so protected early in my baseball career, it's allowed me to do some things later like this," Sabathia said. "The fact that the Indians kept such a close eye and worried about pitch counts and how much I was throwing, I think it actually helps me now."

He's due to be a hero

Justin Morneau was so mad at himself after a routine fly to left field to end the Twins' 4-2 loss to Kansas City on Saturday that he took about three steps out of the batter's box and smashed his bat onto the ground, shattering it.

Justin Morneau

Morneau

He said afterward that it's been a long time since he's done that. "I don't like doing it,'' said Morneau, who has 11 hits in his past 58 at-bats. "I usually save that for the hallway. This was a frustrating day.''

Morneau, an MVP candidate who has 23 home runs and 129 RBIs, has picked a bad time to slip into a slump.

"It didn't happen [Saturday],'' he said. "Hopefully I get another chance [Sunday]. … Sometimes you hit, sometimes you don't.''

Losing by winning?

Given the specter of facing Johan Santana (7-0, 1.78 in his past 13 starts) twice in a best-of-five series, the Cubs might be better off losing to Milwaukee on Sunday. That would increase their chances of a first-round matchup against the Dodgers. But the Cubs would never admit to seeing the likes of Manny Ramirez and Derek Lowe (5-1, 0.94 in his past nine starts) as lesser evils, and even with Santana, some argue the Mets would be the NL's weakest playoff team.

You can bet the Mets will check out the Cubs' lineup Sunday after Piniella started a complete B Team behind Ted Lilly on Saturday in Milwaukee. But it doesn't seem to matter whom Piniella starts. His team will have a chance to win.

Piniella has been walking a fine line all week, trying to get his team ready for the playoffs while playing meaningful games against the Mets and Brewers. The Cubs have gone 4-3 since clinching the NL Central title despite resting regulars. He is giving Angel Guzman, a September addition, a start Sunday but could use as many as seven or eight pitchers.

Worth considering

If stretch-run momentum matters, watch out for the Phillies. They won 12 of 15 to clinch the NL East, coming from 3½ games behind the Mets. The ageless Jamie Moyer was 3-0 during that stretch. … A Mets-Brewers playoff would be held at Shea Stadium on Monday night. The Mets would choose between Pedro Martinez on three days' rest or rookie lefty Jonathon Niese. The Brewers would consider using one of as many as five possible starters, none of whom would be working on regular rest. Yovani Gallardo, who has pitched only once since blowing out his knee on May 1, would love to get the call. … Kevin Slowey, hit in the right wrist by a Juan Uribe liner Thursday, is not expected to be available for a playoff game Tuesday, and Twins manager Ron Gardenhire says he won't use Francisco Liriano on three days' rest. That makes Nick Blackburn the likely choice if the Twins have to go to Chicago. … Brewers fans will hold their breaths if Salomon Torres is handed a lead in the ninth inning Sunday. He failed to retire any of the three batters he faced Saturday and allowed a Kosuke Fukudome homer. He has allowed 17 hits and five walks in 8 2/3 innings during his past 10 outings. … Not all of Sunday's intriguing races are for playoff spots. Washington and Seattle will determine who gets the first pick in the 2009 draft -- and probably the rights to San Diego State right-hander Stephen Strasburg. By winning their past two games against Oakland, the Mariners moved one half-game ahead of the Nationals. … Also today: The Royals badly want to beat Minnesota to stay one half-game ahead of Detroit to avoid their fifth consecutive last-place finish. They have won their past eight games on the road, their longest road winning streak since 1977.

Phil Rogers is the national baseball writer for the Chicago Tribune, which has its Web site at www.chicagosports.com. His book, "Say It's So," a story about the 2005 White Sox, is available in bookstores, through Amazon.com and by direct order from Triumph Books (800-222-4657).