Konerko starts AL's late comeback

Konerko starts AL's late comeback

PITTSBURGH -- It seemed almost apropos that Paul Konerko started the two-out, ninth-inning rally against Padres closer Trevor Hoffman during the American League's thrilling, 3-2 come-from-behind victory in Tuesday's 77th All-Star Game at PNC Park.

For starters, the White Sox seem to do their best work with two outs and nobody on base in the ninth, trailing by one or two runs. That fact played out last Sunday afternoon, with Jermaine Dye's home run off of Boston's virtually unhittable closer Jonathan Papelbon in that exact situation, not to mention the South Siders' 11 victories coming in their last at-bats. Those cardiac comebacks simply are a carryover from the countless exciting finishes during the memorable 2005 campaign.

And now the White Sox hope to reap the benefits of the AL's ninth straight victory in the All-Star Game and the fourth time in four tries the AL claimed home-field advantage in the World Series since the Midsummer Classic took on greater meaning than an exhibition. It's a bonus that benefited the Red Sox in 2004 and the White Sox in 2005, but did not help the Yankees against the Marlins in 2003.

Ozzie Guillen vowed to manage Tuesday's contest as if it were the seventh game of the World Series, knowing how important having the home field can be from his very recent playoff experience. For the defending champions to get a shot at playing deep into October once again, the team currently featuring the second-best record in baseball needs to pick up right where it left off when the second half begins Friday at Yankee Stadium.

This second-half opening challenge features just about as tough of a start as imaginable for the White Sox. The three weekend games in New York are followed by three at Comerica Park in Detroit, and then three apiece at home against Texas and Minnesota. Four playoff contenders, 12 games, no waiting for the White Sox.

Yet, it's a challenging second-half opening for the White Sox that actually could be a plus, according to Konerko.

"The tendency is to be flat the first game or two of the second half, and that doesn't really happen in Yankee Stadium," said Konerko, whose two hits Tuesday gave him four hits in five All-Star at-bats. "It's not so much the Yankees, but playing in Yankee Stadium. That atmosphere should kick us back in gear. We are playing tough teams, but it forces you to focus and get going earlier."

"You let down in Yankee Stadium, and you are going to get swept," Guillen added. "We have to go hard from the get-go. I think the second half separates the kids from the men."

Asking the seven White Sox All-Stars and Guillen about their primary concerns for the second half basically brought five or six different answers.

Konerko stressed tightening the defense up a little bit, with a few first-half mistakes causing the White Sox hurlers to throw a few extra pitches. A.J. Pierzynski, who became an All-Star through the Monster 2006 Final Vote election, talked about focusing on the 2006 squad and dropping comparisons to 2005's magical championship run.

Guillen, meanwhile, stressed pitching -- just as he has done since taking the job in 2004 and with the American League All-Stars on Tuesday.

"My starting rotation, I wish it would be more consistent," Guillen said. "We were spoiled by the pitching staff and expect a lot from them. But I think our rotation should throw the ball better."

"They still give us a chance to win every night, which is all you can ask for with the offense," Konerko added. "But if you are going to compare it to last season, that was just one of those special years where it seemed like there were 140 games we held the team to two runs, which is phenomenal."

Aside from the team concerns, the White Sox agreed as a group on Tuesday that the Detroit Tigers are no fluke and will be in playoff contention right to the very end. It's a sentiment shared by Tigers All-Star outfielder Magglio Ordonez, who admitted to being more than a bit emotional last year while watching his former team win a title.

Detroit is 1-5 in 2006 against the White Sox, who stand as the only team consistently able to beat Major League Baseball's best and the leaders of the American League Central. Ordonez, in turn, isn't focused solely on the White Sox dominance over his team.

"Our key is to win every series and just win a lot of ballgames," Ordonez said. "That's all we have done so far. We know the White Sox are a tough team, but we focus on everything, not just them."

"They aren't going anywhere," Konerko added of Detroit. "People who say that are the same who said that about us last year. There's no reason why they won't go out and win at the same clip."

Of course, Konerko isn't counting out Minnesota, with the main reason being located adjacent to Mark Buehrle's All-Star locker in the form of prime Cy Young candidates Johan Santana and Francisco Liriano. Konerko won't even discount Cleveland, despite the Indians sitting 16 1/2 games behind the White Sox. Not after Cleveland's amazing comeback down the stretch last season.

Buehrle, Konerko, Pierzynski, Jim Thome, Jermaine Dye, Bobby Jenks and Jose Contreras gathered their belongings together and took off from Pittsburgh after Tuesday's special night, preparing for two days of rest and relaxation. Dye also made an appearance and bounced back to the pitcher in his lone ninth-inning at-bat, while Thome pinch-hit and rolled a broken-bat grounder to second.

The White Sox left town knowing that home-field advantage belongs to the AL in the World Series. Now, it's up to the them to make that advantage work for them, although a great deal of work has to be done before that advantage comes into play. Teams such as Boston, Detroit and the Yankees probably left town with the same thought.

"It's nice to know we did it and have a chance to get the home-field advantage," Pierzynski said. "At the same, it's a long, long way away."

"That's what we were here for and playing for," Buehrle added. "We don't think about it now, though, not until we could get there."

Scott Merkin is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.