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In the five ALCS games White Sox pitchers permitted only 33 base runners, with Angels slugger Vladimir Guerrero reaching just once in 20 at bats. Said Sox pitching coach Don Cooper, "When a staff is doing as well as we are this year, there are two things you have to look at: the defense behind them and the person in front of them calling the game. [Pierzynski] remembers the game plan and follows it."
The four Chicago starters all threw more than 200 innings during the regular season, but they were so fresh against Los Angeles that they grew stronger as the games went on. The Angels, in fact, never scored after the sixth inning. A robust Garland, for instance, working on 12 days of rest in Game 3, smothered the Angels with darting 94-mph four-seam fastballs instead of his usual steady supply of 90-mph sinkers, allowing just four hits in a 5-2 victory. "He looked like it was Opening Day," Cooper said.
Sox pitchers adhere to a timeless philosophy: attack the strike zone early in the count and work quickly. They rarely stray from the rubber between pitches, and because Pierzynski calls all pitches himself, they don't need to wait for signals to be shuttled from the dugout. Cooper shoots for an almost unheard-of 70% first-pitch strikes (the Sox got 64% against Los Angeles), innings of 13 pitches or less (they averaged 12.4 in the ALCS) and at bats that are dictated by the first three pitches (the Angels managed four walks and only 11 other plate appearances with even three balls).
Ozzie Guillen is the old-school manager who oversees the staff, if your idea of old school is as much Jackie Mason (to whom Williams compared Guillen for his blunt humor) as it is John McGraw. As a coach with the Expos, Guillen once included only five names on his end-of-the-season team evaluation. "They're the only ones here who can play," he reasoned.
Guillen began his October 2003 managerial interview with Williams, who explained that former Blue Jays skipper Cito Gaston was the front-runner for the job, by telling the G.M., "Go to hell." He largely ignores scouting reports and computers, works behind a glass desk only slightly larger than a TV snack tray to underscore his lack of interest in information and paperwork and limits his entire inventory of available in-game information to two two-by-three laminated cards.
"If a pitcher's going good, we leave him in," Cooper said. "And if he's not, we get him out. How revolutionary."
Pierzynski said he quickly grew comfortable playing for Guillen and with teammates who were cast aside by other franchises, such as Contreras, closer Bobby Jenks, outfielder Jermaine Dye and DH Carl Everett. Pierzynski spent 10 seasons in the Minnesota organization--he was an All-Star in 2002--while developing his reputation as a pest who might step on a hitter's bat after he leaves the batter's box or elbow a fielder while running to first base. "He's the classic guy you hate as an opponent but love as a teammate," said Konerko, the ALCS MVP.
After a trade that brought him to San Francisco last year, however, Pierzynski proceeded to irritate teammates, too. One of them anonymously called Pierzynski "a cancer" and said that Pierzynski had played cards for 20 minutes rather than attend a meeting to review opposing hitters. Said Pierzynski, "I finished my hand--it took two minutes--and attended the meeting. I've never missed a meeting."
The Giants had enough of him after one season. Rather than pay Pierzynski the $4.5 million or so he was likely to earn through arbitration, they signed free agent Mike Matheny and cut a 27-year-old lefthanded-hitting catcher coming off a career-best 77 RBIs. Pierzynski signed with Chicago for $2.25 million--only after Harrelson told him the Sox needed his grit and Williams told him he needed to change his reputation as an unlikeable agitator.
"I probably made more phone calls on A.J. than I have for any other player," Williams said. "I must have talked to him for 10 hours or more. They were very candid conversations. I told him, 'Even if we don't sign you, you need to know this, for yourself and your family.'