Drawing on power from the most unexpected source in their lineup, the Chicago White Sox evened the ALCS at two games apiece last night with an impressive 7-4 victory over the Blue Jays.
Lance Johnson, one of the so-called "fleas" in the White Sox's lineup, devastated the Blue Jays with a shocking power display. The little center fielder unloaded a two-run homer in the second inning and a decisive two-run triple in the sixth as the White Sox won their second in a row at SkyDome.
The victory put the White Sox in position to make ALCS history. No team has ever lost the first two games at home and gone on to win the pennant, but the White Sox are two victories away.
Hampered by missed opportunities and defensive lapse while losing Games 1 and 2 at home, the White Sox have seen the roles reversed dramatically. Last night it was the Blue Jays who left runners on base in all but the last inning (11 overall), and the White Sox who made the big defensive play.
Todd Stottlemyre, who allowed the home runs to Johnson and Frank Thomas, was the losing pitcher. Tim Belcher, the first of four relievers to follow starter Jason Bere, allowed one run in 3 2/3 innings for the victory.
"Before the game they told me the ball was really jumping out of here [during batting practice]," said White Sox manager Gene Lamont. "Somebody said, 'Even Lance hit a couple of out.' "
Johnson did not hit a home run in 540 at-bats during the regular season and had only four in 2,612 previous career at-bats.
"I think the law of averages came out tonight," said Johnson. "I hadn't had much success against him [Stottlemyre]."
Going into the game, Johnson had a career .100 average (3-for-30) against Stottlemyre and had been hitless in seven at-bats this year. But, as shocking as the home run was, it was the triple that might have damaged the Blue Jays the most.
The triple, like the home run, came on the first pitch and went over the head of Devon White, the league's best center fielder. Although the ball was well-hit, it appeared White had tracked it down.
But, as he glided onto the warning track, still one step away from the fence, the ball sailed over his glove. The triple enabled the White Sox to break a 3-3 tie and take a lead they never relinquished.
Although he already had homered, Johnson said he wasn't surprised he was able to hit the ball over White's head.
"Devo [White] usually plays me shallow," said Johnson, who led the league in triples the past two years. "But I can hit a high fastball pretty well."
In addition to the big hit, the White Sox also got a huge play from left fielder Tim Raines.
With the White Sox guarding a 5-4 lead in the sixth, Raines charged a single by Joe Carter and made a strong throw to the plate to keep Roberto Alomar from scoring the tying run. From that point on, the White Sox were in control.
Going in, neither team knew what to expect from the opposing pitcher. Bere, who won his last seven decisions en route to a 12-5 record, did not face the White Sox during the regular season.
Both managers seemed to think that was an edge for the rookie right-hander. "I think that kind of matchup is an advantage for the pitcher," said Lamont, "but we'll have to see how it plays out."
Toronto's Cito Gaston agreed: "As a hitter, I always felt like it was a disadvantage any time you faced somebody you hadn't seen before."
As it turned out, the White Sox got to Stottlemyre first, but Bere's advantage lasted only once through the Toronto batting order. After an eventless first inning, the White Sox got an early 2-0 cushion.
Johnson hit a two-run shot over the 375-foot sign in right-center field, scoring Ellis Burks, who had singled.
The Blue Jays got a break the next inning when Raines led off with what looked like a double into the right-field corner. When shortstop Tony Fernandez applied a late tag, he pushed Raines' foot off second base and got an out call from umpire Ken Kaiser.
Raines was enraged and had to be restrained as Lamont took up his cause with Kaiser, with the usual results. Not long after that, Bere began to unravel.
After Pat Borders hit a soft single to center, Rickey Henderson flied out, but White walked. Alomar then poked a bouncing single down the left-field line, and the Blue Jays were in motion.
White went to third on the hit, Alomar took second on the throw -- and both scored on Carter's first-pitch single to left. Then, after a mound visit from Lamont, Bere hit John Olerud with a pitch and walked Paul Molitor to load the bases.
When Bere's first pitch to Fernandez was a ball, Lamont had seen enough. Right-hander Belcher came in and, after running the count to 3-and-1, struck out Fernandez and got Ed Sprague to hit into a force to end the inning.
White Sox-Blue Jays scoring
White Sox second: Burks singled to left. Jackson grounded out to shortstop Fernandez, Burks to second. Johnson homered to right on 0-0 count, Burks and Johnson scored. Karkovice grounded out to first baseman Olerud, pitcher Stottlemyre covering. Guillen struck out. 2 runs, 2 hits, 0 errors, 0 left on. White Sox 2, Blue Jays 0.
Blue Jays third: Borders singled to center. Henderson flied out to left fielder Raines. White walked, Borders to second. Alomar singled down the left-field line, Borders scored, White to third, and on throw home, Alomar to second. Carter singled to left, White and Alomar scored. Olerud hit by pitch, Carter to second. Molitor walked, Carter to third, Olerud to second. With 1-0 count on Fernandez, Belcher relieved Bere. Fernandez struck out. Sprague grounded into fielder's choice to third baseman Ventura, Olerud forced at third. 3 runs, 3 hits, 0 errors, 3 left on. Blue Jays 3, White Sox 2.
White Sox sixth: Cora grounded out to first baseman Olerud, pitcher Stottlemyre covering. Thomas homered to left center on 2-2 count. Ventura grounded out to first baseman Olerud. Burks walked. Jackson walked, Burks to second. Johnson tripled to center, Burks and Jackson scored. Karkovice flied out to left fielder Henderson. 3 runs, 2 hits, 0 errors, 1 left on. White Sox 5, Blue Jays 3.
Blue Jays sixth: Borders lined out to second baseman Cora. Henderson walked. On Belcher's wild pitch, Henderson to second. White grounded out to pitcher Belcher, Henderson to third. Alomar doubled down the right-field line, Henderson scored. Carter singled to left, Alomar to third and out at home, left fielder Raines to catcher Karkovice. 1 run, 2 hits, 0 errors, 1 left on. White Sox 5, Blue Jays 4.
White Sox seventh: Leiter pitching. Guillen singled to shortstop. Raines singled to right, Guillen to third. Cora grounded out to shortstop Fernandez, Guillen scored, Raines to second. Thomas intentionally walked. Ventura grounded into fielder's choice, third baseman Sprague to second baseman Alomar, Raines to third, Thomas forced at second. Timlin relieved Leiter. Burks lined out to second baseman Alomar. 1 run, 2 hits, 0 errors, 2 left on. White Sox 6, Blue Jays 4.
White Sox ninth: Guillen lined out to right fielder Carter. Raines singled to left. Cora singled to center, Raines to second. Thomas grounded into fielder's choice, pitcher Timlin to second baseman Alomar, Raines to third, Cora forced at second. Ventura singled to right, Raines scored, Thomas to third. Burks struck out. 1 run, 3 hits, 0 errors, 2 left on. White Sox 7, Blue Jays 4.
AL PLAYOFFS TODAY
(Series tied, 2-2)
Site: SkyDome, Toronto
White Sox starter: Jack McDowell (0-1, 9.45 in ALCS)
Blue Jays starter: Juan Guzman (1-0, 3.00 in ALCS)
TV: Channels 11, 9
Radio: WBAL (1090 AM)