CHICAGO | Thanks to Jim Thome‘s bat and Ken Griffey Jr.‘s arm, the AL Central has a winner at last - the Chicago White Sox.
John Danks pitched eight innings of two-hit ball, Thome homered and Griffey threw out a runner at the plate with a tough tag by A.J. Pierzynski, helping Chicago beat the Minnesota Twins 1-0 in a 163rd-game tiebreaker for the division title Tuesday night.
The White Sox joined the crosstown Cubs in the postseason, the first time since 1906 that both Chicago teams made it. And just as the Cubs did when they clinched the NL Central crown, several White Sox players came back on the field after the final out and sprayed fans with champagne.
“We’re so happy from our end that Sox fans get to enjoy this ride,” Thome said.
Next up for the South Siders, a first-round matchup with the surprising Rays. Game 1 is Thursday at Tampa Bay, which won the AL East.
“Look at this,” Thome said with the crowd roaring all around him. “This is what it’s all about - October baseball.”
The White Sox got a huge boost Tuesday from two of their oldest players: Thome and Griffey, both longing for their first World Series championship.
Thome’s long drive on a 2-2 pitch from rookie Nick Blackburn cleared two rows of shrubs in center field, traveling an estimated 461 feet to snap a scoreless tie in the seventh. It was the 541st homer for Thome, who raised his right fist as he rounded first base. He hadn’t been to the playoffs since 2001.
Griffey, who came to the White Sox in a trade with the Reds so he could have a chance at playing in the postseason, cut down Michael Cuddyer with a nice throw in the fifth. Griffey, who like Thome is 38, will be making is first postseason appearance since 1997 with Seattle.
“He did a heck of a job,” Thome said. “I’m so happy for him, too.”
Bobby Jenks worked a perfect ninth for his 30th save in 34 chances. Center fielder Brian Anderson ended with a diving catch of Alexi Casilla’s blooper.
Soon after it was over, Pierzynski, Danks and Nick Swisher grabbed a microphone on the field and addressed the delirious crowd.
Danks, pitching on three days’ rest for the first time in his career and with just one win in his previous seven starts, held the Twins hitless through the first four innings until Cuddyer led off the fifth with a double and moved to third on Delmon Young’s fly to center.
When Griffey caught Brendan Harris’ shallow fly ball to center, Cuddyer took off for the plate. He crashed into Pierzynski, who held onto Griffey’s two-hop throw while tagging Cuddyer for the out. Pierzynski then popped up and showed the ball as the crowd of 40,354 - mostly dressed in black - roared.
Danks (12-9) delivered in the biggest game of his brief career. He won a duel with Blackburn (11-11), who had retired 13 of 14 before Thome led off the seventh with his long homer.
The White Sox hosted the game because they won a coin flip earlier this month and what an advantage it was: Chicago went 8-2 against the Twins at U.S. Cellular Field this season and 1-8 at the Metrodome.
“That’s a battle between friends,” Chicago manager Ozzie Guillen said, referring to the rivalry. “We just got the last laugh.”
It was the eighth one-game playoff in major league history and the first in the AL since 1995 when Seattle beat the California Angels 9-1 to win the AL West. Playing for the Mariners in that game was Griffey and Chicago bench coach Joey Cora.
A late-season slide by the White Sox began at the Metrodome a week ago. The White Sox entered a three-game series with a 2 1/2-game lead in the division but the Twins pulled off a sweep to take over first place.
Chicago came home and lost two straight to the Indians but was able to stay close because the Twins dropped two in a row to the Royals at the Metrodome. On Sunday both teams won, leaving Minnesota’s lead at a half-game. The White Sox had to beat Detroit in a rain-delayed makeup game Monday to force Tuesday night’s tiebreaker.
“We bounce back every time we are against the wall,” Guillen said.
Their styles are different. The White Sox relied more on power, the Twins on speed. But going into the game they not only were 88-74, they had identical marks at home (53-28), on the road (35-46) and in their division (43-29).
The Twins endured the departures of star center fielder Torii Hunter and ace Johan Santana by using speed with young players such as Denard Span and Carlos Gomez, sound fundamentals that are taught throughout their system and clutch hitting.
Joe Mauer went 0-for-3 Tuesday night but still won his second AL batting title at .328. Justin Morneau, who drive in 129 runs, slumped in the final week.
The White Sox overcame late injuries to surprising star Carlos Quentin, who was leading the AL in homers when he broke his right wrist by hitting it on his bat in frustration Sept. 1, and third baseman Joe Crede, who had back problems. Neither is expected back for the playoffs.
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