The White Sox, coming off the ultimate high of beating the rival Minnesota Twins at home in a one game playoff to clinch the Central Division title, seemed to be oozing confidence as they stepped onto Tropicana Field for a Game 1 showdown with the American League East Champion Tampa Bay Rays.
Save, perhaps, one disgruntled starting pitcher.
Javier Vasquez, who lost 16 times in the regular season, lost his first postseason decision Thursday night. This is the same Vasquez that was called out by manager Ozzie Guillen for his performance of late, with Guillen saying Vasquez was "not a big game pitcher."
"You need to get the job done, and I didn't get it done," said Vazquez, who gave up six runs on eight hits over 4 1/3 innings. "By far, this is the toughest stretch of my career, and I have no explanation."
After being staked to a 3-1 lead in the third inning thanks to Dwayne Wise's first playoff home run with two outs, Vasquez quickly ran into trouble. An RBI triple off of the bat of White Sox killer Akinori Iwamura, a sacrifice fly by Willie Aybar, and an Evan Longoria home run capped off the three run comeback. It was a lead that Tampa Bay wouldn't relinquish, and deflating to an already shaky Vasquez.
Longoria, meanwhile, continued to show why he is the top candidate for American League Rookie of the Year. His first two at-bats of the night were home runs off of Vasquez. Suprisingly, he is not the first to homer in his first two playoff at-bats; Gary Gaetti of the Twins did it in the 1980's.
Save for Dwayne Wise's three run homer in the third, the White Sox could get nothing going off of Rays starter James Shields. His changeup was as devastating as ever, as several White Sox players were left shaking their heads after swinging at balls in the dirt.
The White Sox did have a chance in the seventh to get back into the game. Paul Konerko, who finished 2-4 with a solo home run, singled to start the inning. After Ken Griffey, Jr. struck out, Alexei Ramirez walked on a 3-1 count and Shields promptly hit A.J. Pierzynski with a pitch to load the bases. Rays manager Joe Maddon called on Grant Balfour to get out of the jam with Juan Uribe at the plate.
Uribe struck out, leaving it up to Orlando Cabrera. The first pitch of his at-bat sailed wide, provoking a reaction from Cabrera, who kicked dirt towards the mound and started jawing at Balfour. Balfour yelled back, and Rays catcher Dioneer Navarro quickly stepped in to quell the argument. Five pitches later, Cabrera struck out swinging, ending the White Sox best chance to get back into the game.
The loss drops the White Sox record on turf to 4-17 on the season. And if the White Sox want to get back into this series, manager Ozzie Guillen says that they'd better be able to win on artificial grass.
"Well, we have to win tomorrow. You know what I mean?" Guillen said. "It's not a do-or-die thing, but I'd rather go home with one win, than go against the wall."
They'll get their chance tonight when veteran hurler Mark Buerhle takes the mound against Rays ace Scott Kazmir. Kazmir was lights out before the all-star break, but has seen his ERA steadily climb since then. If the White Sox want to get one before heading home to U.S. Cellular Field, this may be their best chance.
"We have to pitch better, that's the bottom line," catcher A.J. Pierzynski said.
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