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10/05/08 11:14 PM EST

All Danks and praise goes to lefty

In first playoff start, southpaw extends White Sox season

CHICAGO -- John Danks could get used to this win-or-go-home pressure. If he doesn't, he still has his catcher to keep him loose.

"I was ridiculing him earlier in the year in the Minnesota series that he asked out of the game in the Metrodome because he was scared of the loud crowd noise," A.J. Pierzynski joked, smiling at Danks. "So I take it all back, John. You've been great these last couple games when we've been at home."

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Pierzynski was kidding about the series against the Twins from the final week in September, when the White Sox arranged their rotation to have Gavin Floyd, Mark Buehrle and Javier Vazquez pitch. A week later, he stepped up against the Twins in a one-game tiebreaker and pitched the White Sox into the postseason.

Once they were in, manager Ozzie Guillen set up his rotation to move up Danks into Game 3 of the American League Division Series on Sunday. The young left-hander responded by keeping the White Sox season going -- again -- with a 5-3 victory.

"If Danks loses in either game," Guillen pointed out, "we would not be here right now."

That's a ton of pressure for a 23-year-old in just his second Major League season. So far, Danks isn't showing it.

"I was more nervous going into the Minnesota game last week than I was this one," he said.

It wasn't the same statistical dominance as he flashed against the Twins, and it wasn't as steady early. But Guillen's faith never seemed to waver, even when five of the first 10 Rays batters reached base safely against him to plate a run and earn Tampa Bay the afternoon's first run in the second inning.

"As soon as the ball came out of his hand, I felt good about it," Guillen said. "You could see his stuff was there."

Danks and his stuff settled down from there. And once Alexei Ramirez's sacrifice fly and Dewayne Wise's two-run double in the bottom of the fourth put the White Sox in command, Danks dominated at just the right stretch.

It's called the shutdown inning, and Danks provided it.

"It's always my goal after we score," Danks said. "Go out there and try to make it as quick as possible and get us back in the dugout."

Not only did Danks retire the Rays in order in the top of the fifth, immediately after Chicago's go-ahead rally, he needed just 10 pitches to do it. Akinori Iwamura struck out on three pitches, B.J. Upton went down swinging at an offspeed pitch and Carlos Pena swung at the first pitch he saw and flied out to left.

"Fortunately, I was able to make pitches and get us out of there," Danks said. "We saw what happened. ... I think it helps our team get on a little roll."

Pierzynski, sitting beside him in the interview room, agreed.

"I think that was your best inning," he said.

"Without a doubt," Danks answered.

"You didn't go 3-0 [count] on anybody," Pierzynski kidded.

If the fifth inning was Danks' shutdown frame, the sixth was his big test. It came after another long stretch in the dugout, though, this time, in large part thanks to a delay while Rays starter Matt Garza asked the grounds crew to work on the mound. After an inning-ending double play closed out Chicago's threat, Danks walked Evan Longoria to lead off the inning and went to a 2-0 count on Carl Crawford with the potential tying run on deck.

Guillen went to the mound -- not with a point to the bullpen, but a point to his starter.

"The only way you are going to lose the game is by walking people," Guillen said afterward, "because everybody in the lineup can hit the ball out of the ballpark. I told him [to] stay aggressive, throw strikes, don't try to aim the ball, don't try to throw the best pitch."

Danks responded big, spotting a full-count fastball on the inside corner for a called third strike on Crawford. He pounded Willy Aybar inside similarly to send him down swinging, then ended the inning with a fly ball from Dioner Navarro.

"Got some big outs in there," Danks said.

He finally started running low on energy in the seventh, leaving a pitch up to Upton for a two-run homer after another leadoff walk. By then, his offense had given him enough support to let the bullpen work with some breathing room.

Danks didn't need to deliver another 1-0 win. The quality start he produced was plenty.

It was enough for Pierzynski to stop teasing him, even if just for a brief moment.

"You see him grow every time out. It's amazing," Pierzynski said. "I remember his first start of the year in Cleveland against the Indians -- a team that everyone had picked to be really good after the great season they had -- and he went out there and dominated them his first time out. You could just see the difference in his mentality, the difference in his stuff.

"I've never seen one guy grow so much from one year to the next."

The way he's pitching, Danks isn't ready to let this year end.

Jason Beck is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.