South Siders not looking too far ahead
White Sox keep focus with prospect of all-Chicago Fall Classic
CHICAGO -- The hype began on April 21.
There actually wasn't a big press release issued or a news conference held to announce the following piece of information. But on that day, MLB.com ran a story talking about the possibility of the Cubs and White Sox playing in a World Series for the first time since the South Siders won a championship in six games back in 1906 during the Theodore Roosevelt administration.
So, two months later, with both teams still sitting atop their respective divisions, forgive us for taking a quick bow to acknowledge being on track to perhaps seeing accurately into the baseball future.
When Jose Contreras throws the first pitch of the second weekend matchup between these two intra-city rivals later Friday, it will mark the first time these two teams have played as division leaders since ... well, OK, it was last weekend at Wrigley Field, but this season marks the first time it has taken place in the long, intense history of this rivalry.
The Cubs swept three games from the White Sox at Wrigley, with the Cubs looking to be of championship caliber, and a nod to Bill Murray and the late John Belushi, the White Sox looked like the not-ready-for-prime-time players. Those fortunes could change greatly, if not completely, at U.S. Cellular Field.
Whereas the Cubs feature Major League Baseball's best home record at 33-10, and made the White Sox part of an unbelievable 14-game winning streak at Wrigley, they have a subpar 16-20 mark away from the Friendly Confines. The White Sox have struggled through 10 losses in their last 12 games during their road journeys, but they also stand at a dominant 24-11 at U.S. Cellular.
Figuring out this weekend's results or who holds the regular-season edge, with the Cubs entering Friday on a 9-1 run against the White Sox dating back the last game of 2006, is not the question at hand. As was asked on April 21, we are here to decipher as to whether 2008 will mark the first Red Line World Series in more than a century.
Knowing the superstitions of ballplayers and their desire to focus on simply the game at hand, both sides were understandably hesitant to talk about baseball in October. In fact, they even categorized this rivalry as just three more games on the schedule, six in total.
"Obviously, you don't want to get ahead of yourself," said White Sox designated hitter Jim Thome, who grew up in downstate Peoria and attended Cubs games as a youngster. "If that all plays out, we'll look at that in the future. But right now, we're focused on what we need to do to win our division, and we got some teams behind us that have been playing well."
"Everybody thinks about the playoffs, but we have a little different approach in the clubhouse as far as how we're going to get there," added Cubs outfielder Reed Johnson, who didn't play last weekend and was then placed on the 15-day disabled list on Tuesday (retroactive to June 18). "We're taking it one series at a time. You win the first two games of the series, you're not going to lay down -- you want to win that third game. If we take that approach, we'll like where we end up a couple months from now."
With neither side truly willing to go out on a Fall Classic limb, let's crunch the numbers to see if these two teams could end up playing for the ultimate bragging rights.
Hitting wins divisions, but pitching wins championships. Both the Cubs and White Sox have power-packed lineups, with the likes of Derrek Lee, Jim Edmonds and especially Aramis Ramirez putting their long-distance hitting skills on display last weekend. The Cubs also possess more speed up and down the lineup than their South Side counterparts, and are hitting a Major League-best .284 with 434 runs scored -- trailing only Texas.
But both squads can flat-out pitch. The White Sox move into this final 2008 Interleague series with a 3.42 ERA, ranking second in baseball and the American League to Oakland. The Cubs ERA of 3.77 puts them sixth overall and second among National League teams.
A relatively healthy team usually has a leg up on the opposition, and that's where the Cubs and White Sox have encountered some recent trouble. The Cubs have dealt with the loss of slugging outfielder Alfonso Soriano, who was just beginning to get his legs under him after an early injury, and will be without the likes of Johnson and possibly Kosuke Fukudome this weekend.
Paul Konerko, the White Sox team captain, is working through the first trip to the disabled list of his career and is expected to return some time next week. In the long run, it's not always the best squads meeting up in the World Series but the best teams who made the most of the breaks they received.
Take a look at the 2005 White Sox, clearly the game's top talent from start to finish that season. But they also didn't have to face Angels ace Bartolo Colon, who was out due to injury, in the American League Championship Series and they missed seeing Roy Oswalt twice in the World Series when Albert Pujols and the Cardinals extended the NLCS to six games.
"I actually got to sit and watch the World Series [in 2005]," White Sox outfielder Brian Anderson said. "You need to have a good team but you need to have special things happen in your favor. Things have to go your way."
At this particular point, the Cubs and White Sox will focus on the weekend challenge ahead and then move on to extending or at least holding on to their respective Central leadership. The Cubs have a 4 1/2-game edge over the Cardinals, and a 5 1/2-game lead over a hard-charging Milwaukee squad.
Ron Gardenhire's red-hot Twins sit one-half game behind the White Sox, with Detroit, many prognosticators' preseason favorite to take home baseball's crown, moving within two games of .500 and five games of the division lead. There's plenty to worry about without trying to figure out if this same basic story will be written once again in late October as a World Series preview.
Both squads have a couple of more intangibles that could push them over the top. In Ken Williams and Jim Hendry, the White Sox and Cubs have general managers who won't hesitate to make bold moves to strengthen their teams or the little moves needed for a more cohesive attack. And in Ozzie Guillen and Lou Piniella, the White Sox and Cubs have dynamic managers with World Series titles on their resumes, managers who know how to keep their teams focused and headed toward an all-Chicago World Series.
"If it happened, I would rent a hotel room outside the city," said Anderson with a laugh. "Good or bad, you couldn't be around there. It would be anarchy."
"We could have Swisher Avenue or Theriot Boulevard -- depending on who won," continued Cubs shortstop Ryan Theriot, concerning the notoriety a championship would bring to the individual players.
"It's not unrealistic to think both teams could get there, and that's both teams' goals," White Sox third baseman Joe Crede added. "It would be great for the city and the fans."
Scott Merkin is a reporter for MLB.com. Reporter Carrie Muskat contributed to this story. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.