Konerko, White Sox show toughness in loss
Captain homers after being hit in face; trail Twins by nine
CHICAGO -- For the first time in three seasons, it appears as if the American League Central will not be decided by Game No. 163 or possibly even come down to the last series of the campaign.
That suspense reduction came courtesy of the Minnesota Twins (88-58), who manhandled the second-place White Sox over three games at U.S. Cellular Field. Actually, that dominance extended out over the entire second half, when the Twins won 10 of 13 head-to-head contests.
Thursday's effort worked out to an 8-5 final for manager Ron Gardenhire's squad before 27,180 on a chilly night in Chicago. The victory completed Minnesota's three-game sweep in a series the White Sox (79-67) needed to at least win and most likely take all three in order to have a viable postseason possibility.
Instead, the White Sox sit nine games out of first place and watched their elimination number drop to eight with 16 games remaining.
No, the fat lady might not yet be singing, as Mark Buehrle (12-11) suggested would happen if this cruelest of fates befell the White Sox. She certainly is warming up now.
"I think she's singing," said Buehrle, who suffered the loss and stayed winless in his last five starts. "Mathematically, we are not out of it. But as good of a team as they have, and we are not playing the best ball right now and the way they are playing, it's kind of obvious."
"If you want to put distance between yourselves and somebody, that's what you have to do -- you have to win the series against them," Gardenhire said. "We came in here and did a heck of a job against them."
This sweep could have had more damaging ramifications for the South Siders than simply reducing their fervent playoff hopes.
In the first inning, with Omar Vizquel on first and two outs, AL Most Valuable Player candidate Paul Konerko suffered a blow to the face by a 1-0 pitch from Minnesota winning pitcher Carl Pavano (17-11). Konerko refused to leave the game after receiving treatment, even when White Sox head athletic trainer Herm Schneider and manager Ozzie Guillen tried to lead him off the field.
According to Guillen, the pitch struck Konerko in between his upper lip and nose. The fat lip Konerko sported after his team's seventh loss in the last nine games overall prevented the captain from speaking, although he did convey through the White Sox media relations staff that he didn't lose any teeth.
Other participants who witnessed the scary moment had plenty to say about Konerko's fortitude as a leader and a professional.
"Someone said on the bench when it happened, 'I knew he was a tough guy but when that happened, he's tougher than you originally think,'" Buehrle said. "That's the type of guys we got. Guys want to battle and be in the situation."
"Seeing Paulie get hit like that, one of the nicest guys in the world, we all felt terrible about it," Gardenhire said. "That was a scary situation."
Guillen praised Konerko as an example of how to handle yourself for not just the players in this game but for players around Major League Baseball. The White Sox manager also didn't think Pavano was throwing intentionally at Konerko.
Nonetheless, Buehrle exacted immediate retaliation when he hit Michael Cuddyer with the first pitch of the second inning. Home-plate umpire Jerry Crawford warned both benches at that point, and Buehrle later indicated in a roundabout way how the purpose pitch wasn't totally of his own making.
"No, I am an employee of the White Sox and I try to do the best job I can," Buehrle said. "When I'm told to do something, I go out and try to do it to the best of my ability. You have to protect your guys."
"They did what they had to do," Gardnehire said. "We just had to come back and swing the bats."
Of course, the Twins did just that by scoring three runs after Cuddyer was hit. Konerko exacted his revenge with two outs in the third, launching the first pitch from Pavano for his 37th home run, and Juan Pierre's run-scoring single scored Alexei Ramirez to cut the lead to 3-2 in the fourth.
But Minnesota answered in the fifth with its fifth straight scoring inning of three runs over the last two games. That rally began when Denard Span drew a walk on a close 3-2 pitch from Buehrle. It ended when Delmon Young clubbed a 404-foot home run to left, scoring two.
Back-to-back home runs from A.J. Pierzynski and Ramirez opening the sixth sparked a rally to cut the lead to 6-5. But with the bases loaded and two outs in the sixth, Carlos Quentin flew out to center against reliever Matt Guerrier.
Quentin finished 0-for-5 on the night, ending the respective inning with every one of his at-bats, while stranding nine guys and the bases loaded twice. As a team, the White Sox finished 5-for-35 with runners in scoring position during this series.
Overall, it was a series to forget in what was targeted as a potential season-maker. Regardless of the postseason task growing exponentially tougher, the White Sox have not thrown in the towel.
"Maybe I sound silly or crazy," said Guillen, talking about catching a team with a 42-16 second-half record. "And I don't know what they put next to your name to mean you are out, but [only] then [will] I count myself out."
"Even if we are mathematically out of it, we aren't going to give up," Buehrle said. "We are here to do a job."
Scott Merkin is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.