Alexei's slam gives Sox 2 1/2-game lead
Youngster ties a rookie record with third bases-clearing shot
KANSAS CITY -- Results from the 9-4 pasting administered by the White Sox upon the Royals on Friday night at Kauffman Stadium prove a couple of facts about this AL Central Division leader to be true.
Four home runs and a little bit of clutch hitting appear to be the perfect cures for pennant race doldrums.
Alexei Ramirez certainly deserves every bit as much of consideration as Tampa Bay's Evan Longoria for the American League Rookie of the Year award.
And maybe, most importantly of all, the White Sox (85-68) still respond fairly quickly to challenges issued by their manager.
Ozzie Guillen pleaded for more intensity and fire during a pregame meeting Friday, following this week's four-game debacle at Yankee Stadium. He received the effort befitting of a team now sitting with a magic number of seven to clinch the American League Central and holding a 2 1/2-game lead, when factoring in an 11-1 loss suffered by Minnesota (83-71) against the Rays.
"He just kind of said something about how we are in first place and have a lead and we are playing like we are in second, trying to catch the team in front of us," said White Sox starter Mark Buehrle, who improved to 19-8 during his career against the Royals, courtesy of Friday's six-inning effort.
"Nobody is having fun," added Buehrle, concerning the gist of Guillen's pregame talk. "We haven't been playing well, and when you are not playing well, it's not easy to have fun. But we've worked hard since Spring Training. It's going to come down to these last nine or 10 days, so we need to act like a first-place team and go play like one."
A six-run fourth for the White Sox not only did in Kansas City starter Brian Bannister (8-16), but the approach shown by the South Siders indicated the pedigree of a champion. With the game scoreless and runners on first and third with two outs, A.J. Pierzynski battled through a nine-pitch at-bat by fouling off three pitches with a 3-2 count to draw a walk.
Ramirez then took his best shot at individual postseason honors, while giving the White Sox a much-needed adrenaline boost in their own playoff quest. The second baseman fouled off five straight pitches after the count reached 2-1, and then launched Bannister's ninth pitch for his 19th home run and third grand slam of the season.
This drive was historic, matching Shane Spencer's 1998 mark for most grand slams in a single season by a rookie. It also tied a White Sox franchise record for team grand slams as the 11th of 2008.
The frenzied celebration in the dugout, led by a fist-pumping, high-fiving manager, showed how Ramirez's blast was the perfect cure for a team-wide, Big Apple-induced funk.
"That's the point of the game where everyone just kind of yelled at once," said Buehrle of Ramirez's grand slam. "It was a huge pick-me up."
"Our team won, and that's most important," added Ramirez, through translator Ozzie Guillen Jr., after improving his RBI total to 70. "I didn't go out there to hit a home run. I was trying to put the ball in play, and it came out a home run. It changed the whole atmosphere of the dugout."
Jim Thome added his 33rd home run and 540th of his career, while Dewayne Wise went deep twice, first in the seventh and again in the ninth. Wise's first career multi-homer game gave him four long balls in his past five games, and the White Sox knocked out at least four home runs in a game for a Major League-best 11th time this season.
Their 10-1 record over those instances shows how much different this team looks when clearing the fences or at least putting up solid at-bats.
"We fight," said Guillen of his team's 11-hit attack. "I told the guys, 'If we go down, we go down fighting.' Regardless of the results, fight every day and play the way we should be playing."
Buehrle (14-11) improved to 3-1 lifetime in five starts when pitching on short rest, allowing three runs on six hits, while striking out two and walking one. He also surpassed 200 innings pitched, as Buehrle became the only active pitcher to record 10 wins, 30 starts and 200 innings pitched in eight consecutive seasons.
"What can you say about Buehrle? Just great," Guillen said. "He goes out one day earlier than he's supposed to be, and he gives us innings and throws the ball the way he's supposed to throw."
Friday's victory improved the White Sox to 40-23 against the American League Central and 2-3 on this 10-game road trip. It also serves as a strong testament to the power Guillen's words have upon his charges.
"Intensity was still there for us," Ramirez said. "But the confidence level went up, knowing [Guillen's] supporting us, and we are all sticking together. That's what I credit this win."
"Well, at least they listen," added Guillen with a laugh. "If things don't work out, we still go out with our head up. That's my job and the coaches' job, having our guys go out with their heads up and ready to play."
Scott Merkin is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.