The White Sox flew home to Chicago on Friday night in a slight state of disbelief, in search of three straight victories to stave off postseason elimination. Making Friday's new math a little tougher to understand was that all 12 hits delivered by the power-packed White Sox lineup were singles.
"For some reason, they have the ability to keep us in the ballpark," said White Sox hitting coach Greg Walker of the Tampa Bay pitching staff.
"In the playoffs, it all boils down to pitching, defense and timely hitting," said right fielder Jermaine Dye, who had four of the team's 12 singles. "We haven't done [the timely hitting] yet."
This contest had the chance to be a statement game for the South Siders, judging by the first inning alone. Scott Kazmir, showing signs of jitters in his first playoff start, hit Orlando Cabrera with a pitch to begin the game, walked Nick Swisher and gave up a single to Dye to load the bases with nobody out before most Rays fans could tune their respective cowbells.
Instead of knocking Kazmir from the game, the White Sox kept the southpaw in limbo by scoring just two on Jim Thome's one-out single and Alexei Ramirez's sacrifice fly. Kazmir's 37-pitch inning was the first of a number of little missed opportunities leading up to the White Sox inability to knot this best-of-five series.
"We're going to go home to our park, get out of this dome, have real baseball and see what happens."
-- A.J. Pierzynski
"We got Kazmir against the ropes ,and we let him go," manager Ozzie Guillen said. "And we left 12, 14 people on base. You're not going to win that many games like that. The opportunities were there, and we couldn't get it done."
"Then we had first and second the next inning," said White Sox catcher A.J. Pierzynski, who finished with an infield hit in four at-bats. "It seemed like we had first and second every inning."
Not quite every inning, as Pierzynski surmised, but the White had two runners on base in the second, fourth and seventh. Paul Konerko ended the second with a popup to shortstop Jason Bartlett and Dye finished off the fourth with a ground ball to second baseman Akinori Iwamura.
Dye and Konerko led off the seventh with singles against reliever Grant Balfour, who bailed out Kazmir in the sixth by getting Cabrera to ground out and Swisher to fly out with Juan Uribe on second. But J.P. Howell entered the game and retired Thome on a fly ball to center, Ramirez on a spinning liner to short and Pierzynski on a ground ball to first baseman Willy Aybar.
Twelve stranded runners for the White Sox on Friday, in total, to go with a .235 average with runners in scoring position (4-for-17) over the first two losses in this series. Both James Shields and Kazmir have made competitive starts, but the Tampa Bay bullpen has given up one Konerko home run over 6 1/3 innings of work.
"They have good pitching; we know that," Konerko said. "That's why they've had the best record in the league. That's why they have home-field advantage. That's why they won the East, which is not easy to do.
"It's one of those things where is it good pitching beats good hitting or is it something that's our fault? I think it's probably a combination of both."
Buehrle nursed a one-run lead into the fifth, before Iwamura launched a two-run home run to left-center for a 3-2 Rays advantage. Buehrle's line should look better than the five runs allowed in seven-plus innings, as he was charged with two after exiting in Tampa Bay's three-run eighth.
With at least one game guaranteed at U.S. Cellular Field on Sunday afternoon, the White Sox find themselves with their whole bodies against the wall -- let alone their backs. Twenty-seven of the 32 teams to take a 2-0 lead in the history of the Division Series have gone on to win the series.
Exactly one week back from the start of Game 3, the White Sox found themselves in need of three wins against the Indians, Tigers and Twins just to reach the postseason. That goal was accomplished, so three straight against the Rays also might not be out of reach.
Of course, the White Sox have to come back to play on turf in Game 5, a surface on which they have a 4-18 record in 2008. And lack of clutch hitting or not, the White Sox simply might be up against a better team.
"I wouldn't say they're better, but I will never admit that a team is better than us until they beat us and finish us off," Pierzynski said. "They're a good team, but we're veterans and we've been through this before and we know it's not over until it's finished. We're going to go home to our park, get out of this dome, have real baseball and see what happens.''
"If we get beat, no one's going to die; it's not the end of the world," Konerko said. "But we're going to try to prolong it and come back here for Game 5."