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White Sox craving comforts of home

White Sox craving comforts of home

ST. PETERSBURG -- Pardon the White Sox if the challenge of three straight elimination games sounds familiar.

Of course, the Rays have proven to be an incredibly difficult team to beat. But to avoid a winner-take-all Game 5 in this American League Division Series, they'll have to eliminate the White Sox at U.S. Cellular Field, something neither the Indians, nor the Tigers, nor the Twins were able to do.

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Only the Rays won more games at home among American League teams than the White Sox, who used their home confines as a launching pad for their mighty offense this summer. Now, however, fall is settling in on Chicago, and as the temperatures fall, so do the fly balls that once drifted out in June and July.
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And lately, so have the opposing offenses that have tried to knock the Sox off.

"Our ballpark, now we go back to being normal," manager Ozzie Guillen said. "Our ballpark in summer, it shrinks. It's very, very small. The balls are flying out there easy. I think right now, the weather changed a little bit, and we saw it last time we played against Minnesota."

The only run in that one-game tiebreaker Tuesday for the AL Central title was Jim Thome's mammoth home run to straightaway center, a ball no ballpark could've contained. A day earlier, the only home run through a rainy, humid evening was Alexei Ramirez's grand slam to push the White Sox past the Tigers in a makeup game that forced Game No. 163. Sunday's win over Cleveland saw just three extra-base hits between the two teams, and two were home runs.

Those were three relatively low-scoring games at a park that annually ranks at or near the top of the Majors in home runs. Now it welcomes a Rays team that has taken the lead in each of this series first two games on big home runs.

Once again, no AL ballpark averaged more home runs per game this season, and it ranked highly this year for runs in general. But the strength in that regard is in the summer, strong enough that it has given the ballpark a good part of its character since it underwent changes a few years ago.

"The ball carries," Rays manager Joe Maddon said Friday. "It really has a jet stream in the right field, normally down either line. It depends on whether it gets caught up in the middle of the field. Normally, the jet stream is right-center to right field."

Maddon went into detail about plenty of aspects about the ballpark, all the way down to the groundskeeping and the wetness of the infield.

"It will be a little bit wetter in one spot. It will be a little bit drier in another spot," Maddon said. "It may be a little bit wet around first base, because we can run. It may be a little bit wet in front of the plate because they hit more fly balls than ground balls. They're very good at tailoring the ballpark to their needs. They've always been that way.

"Furthermore, the grass is normally a little bit thicker, although the last time we played there I thought it was a little bit quick."

That trip was in late August, and the Rays took two out of three by scoring 19 runs over three games, pounding out four home runs and adding 10 other extra-base hits. Maddon is anticipating a slow field for this weekend, but the way the Rays have hit over the first two games of the ALDS, they haven't needed much of their speed game or small ball.

In the fall weather, however, the strength of U.S. Cellular Field arguably plays to the pitchers. It's an adjustment that Game 3 starter John Danks is anticipating after his eight scoreless innings led Chicago to the tiebreaker win.

"It plays a little bigger when it's a little cooler," Danks said. "Other than that, it plays pretty fair, but in the heat of the summer, when you get a ball that you think will probably be caught, it tends to drift out sometimes. Hopefully it's cool out and I can keep the ball in the yard."

Sunday's forecast for the 3 p.m. CT start calls for a chance of rain, light breezes and temperatures in the mid-60s. Monday could see the high temperature around 70 before the evening cools off into the 50s.

"When it gets colder, it shouldn't carry as well," Maddon said. "There is always a prevailing breeze, even though it looks like it might be blowing one way, the way the wind swirls or it always kicks out in that area, but we'll wait and see.

"Again, that's just the way the field plays. We can't be concerned with that. I don't want our pitchers to think anything differently and pitch people otherwise."

Pitchers could like it. Hitters could cool off. After two games of Rays offense, that could be a relief for the White Sox.

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

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