ST. PETERSBURG -- In the highly knowledgeable pitching mind of White Sox starter Mark Buehrle, one poorly located slider and one errant late at-bat pretty much led to his first postseason defeat, 6-2, in Game 2 of the American League Division Series on Friday against the Rays.
That slider was delivered to Tampa Bay leadoff man Akinori Iwamura with one out, Jason Bartlett on first and the White Sox nursing a 2-1 lead. Iwamura launched the 1-1 offering into the left-center-field stands for a home run that basically put the Rays in front for good.
It was the at-bat involving B.J. Upton leading off the eighth, though, that really seemed to bother Buehrle more than the long ball. Buehrle will give up his fair share of hits, an AL-leading 240 over 218 2/3 innings this season, to be exact.
But to fall behind Upton with three straight pitches outside of the strike zone, especially with the White Sox down just 1 ... well, that's not part of Buehrle's repertoire. Upton eventually tripled to center, sparking a three-run rally to give the Rays a comfort zone.
"I made a bad pitch to Iwamura, and they took the lead," Buehrle said. "Going back out there for the eighth inning and falling behind 3-0 is pretty much unacceptable. It's a different game, and maybe we come back 3-2 instead of 6-2. It was a big leadoff hitter to get out."
Buehrle can be so hard on himself only because the expectations are so high whenever the southpaw takes the mound. He might not be considered the White Sox ace, per se. Not with Gavin Floyd producing 17 wins and John Danks having a slightly better 2008 season from start to finish.
His role takes on far greater significance. Buehrle stands as the heart of the pitching staff, which is why the White Sox felt so confident down one game with their heart beating in Game 2 of this best-of-five American League Division Series.
"That's why he's making $14 million," said White Sox manager Ozzie Guillen with a laugh. "That's why he's the leader. That's the reason that's the guy we pick for big games to survive.
Mark Buehrle had a history of Game 2 success during the White Sox run through the postseason in 2005. Chicago won all three games he started that October, and all of them played pivotal roles in the series victories. However, on Friday, he allowed five earned runs and 10 hits in seven innings, while striking out three Rays batters.
Mark Buehrle's postseason outings in 2005: Date & Opp - Line (result)
"You know what you are going to get. Buehrle, good or bad, he'll give you what he's got."
On Friday, all Buehrle had just wasn't quite enough. Actually, Buehrle was far from the reason why the White Sox now sit one game away from elimination.
He struck out three and didn't walk a hitter in seven-plus innings. Buehrle probably should have been working with a four- or five-run lead instead of one if the offense could have come up with a clutch hit or two.
"Mark pitched great," White Sox catcher A.J. Pierzynski said. "His line really isn't going to reflect how well he pitched. He deserves a lot more credit by the way he threw that ball, by the way he kept us in that game. He probably deserved the win."
If the White Sox win the next two behind Danks and Floyd, then it's a safe bet Buehrle will pitch Game 5 on regular rest this Wednesday at Tropicana Field. If Friday was Buehrle's last start, he expressed satisfaction with his 2008 performance.
Another year on the mound with double-digit wins (15-12), at least 200 innings pitched, at least 30 starts and an ERA below 4.00. The heart of the White Sox will keep beating, only it might not be until Spring Training 2009, after setting the tone for '08.
"Set the tone? If I set the tone from Day 1, we would have been one of the worst teams in history," said a smiling Buehrle, who gave up seven runs on seven hits over 1 2/3 innings on Opening Day in Cleveland. "You try to get 20 wins, but I came up short. But I think I gave my team quality starts 24 of 34 times.
"I felt awesome [Friday], and the game was cruising along. Besides those two runs to Iwamura, that leadoff guy in the eighth inning, other than that, I threw the ball well."
Scott Merkin is a reporter for MLB.com.
This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.