- The Washington Times - Sunday, October 23, 2005

CHICAGO — They came to see great starting pitching and instead got early offense. They came to see solid, fundamental baseball and instead got three-plus hours of sloppiness and missed opportunities.

And they came to see perhaps the greatest pitcher of all time and instead got two labored innings followed by an early departure with a hamstring injury.

You know what? The 41,206 huddled masses last night at U.S. Cellular Field still went home ecstatic, because they came out on this chilly, rainy night on the South Side for only one reason: to see their beloved Chicago White Sox win in their first World Series game in 46 years.

In that regard, they got exactly what they wanted.

Behind an early offensive explosion against a hobbled Roger Clemens, seven workhorse innings from Jose Contreras and a brilliant escape job by a bullpen that hadn’t seen a moment of action in 11 days, the White Sox earned a 5-3, Game1 victory over the Houston Astros.

It may not have come exactly how everyone expected it to, but it was sweet music to the White Sox and their championship-deprived fans who rode their sky-high emotions to victory.

“Pitching in Game1 of the World Series, that opportunity alone would fire anybody up,” said closer Bobby Jenks, who was so jacked up that his fastball reached triple digits.

There’s still plenty standing between Chicago and the franchise’s first World Series title since 1917. But if last night’s win was a sign of things to come, this club might just have what it takes to hoist that trophy.

Coming in, the White Sox were known for their four-deep starting rotation and their balanced lineup.

What was less obvious was what White Sox manager Ozzie Guillen has known for some time — how dominating his bullpen can be, even after such a long layoff.

“Those kids have been doing the same stuff all year long,” Guillen said. “A lot of people asked me about the layoff, but that’s the way we’ve played all year long.”

The stars last night were Neal Cotts and Jenks, the unheralded lefty-righty duo who pitched out of a two-on, no-out jam in the eighth to save this game. Cotts got things started by striking out Morgan Ensberg and Mike Lamb, then handed the ball to the portly Jenks, who blew away Jeff Bagwell on a 100mph fastball. The rookie closer then mowed through the Astros in the ninth, striking out two more, including Adam Everett to end the game.

“We just didn’t put the ball in play the way we should have tonight,” said Houston manager Phil Garner, whose club continued to struggle in the clutch by going 1-for-10 with runners in scoring position. “That ended up being the ballgame.”

A World Series that was hyped as a battle of two dazzling pitching staffs hardly lived up to its reputation early on in Game1. Contreras battled from the outset, surrendering a second-inning home run to Lamb and a two-run double to Lance Berkman in the third. But the White Sox right-hander hung tough and wound up lasting seven-plus innings before departing with a one-run lead.

Clemens never gave himself a chance. He needed 25 pitches just to get through the first inning, one of those having been crushed by Jermaine Dye into the right-field bleachers for a solo home run. He needed 29 to make it out of the second, having allowed two more runs to score on A.J. Pierzynski’s fielder’s choice and Juan Uribe’s two-out double.

When the inning was finally over, Clemens retreated to the first-base dugout and headed straight down the tunnel to the Houston clubhouse. Replaced an inning later by rookie Wandy Rodriguez, the greatest pitcher of this generation was unceremoniously removed with what the team later announced was a strained left hamstring. It’s uncertain whether he’ll be able to start Game5 in Houston.

“He’s the proverbial day-to-day,” Garner said. “We’ll have to see how he is as we go along.”

It was Clemens’ shortest outing in five years, his shortest postseason start since he was ejected for swearing at umpire Terry Cooney in Game4 of the 1990 American League Championship Series.

He has been dealing with the hamstring injury for more than a month now, even though the Astros had been insisting throughout the playoffs it was no longer an issue. Asked about his pitcher’s health on Friday, Garner said, “He’s fine. He’s ready and able to go.”

Clemens, at 43 the second-oldest starting pitcher in World Series history, suggested he would have no trouble making his start beforehand.

“I don’t care how my body feels this time of year,” he said. “If you need more aspirin, if you need more heat, if you need more ice, this is the time you get it, and you don’t ask questions.”

The only question after Clemens left the game was how the Astros were going to be able to cobble together at least six more innings out of their bullpen. Rodriguez was the first man in, but he labored from the start, walking five (one intentionally) over 31/3 innings.

The free passes ultimately didn’t hurt the left-hander, but an 0-2 fastball over the heart of the plate to Joe Crede in the fourth did. Crede, who also saved the White Sox with two diving stops at third base, launched it to deep left-center to give his club a 4-3 lead it had no intention of giving back.

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