Bases loaded. Nobody out. And the White Sox held the slimmest of leads, 4-3, in Game 3 of the 2005 ALDS.
And who did Ozzie Guillen turn to?
Cliff Politte, an ace reliever who posted a 2.00 ERA during the regular season? Or Neal Cotts, who was even more effective, with a 1.94 ERA? Or even Dustin Hermanson, who closed out so many nail-biters before being replaced with fireballing rookie Bobby Jenks, and his 2.04 ERA?
No, Guillen went with the former fifth starter who was jettisoned from the rotation weeks earlier, a guy who had a 5.12 ERA during the regular season.
Enter: El Duque.
Orlando Hernandez didn’t put up the kind of regular-season numbers that would typically warrant his manager’s utmost confidence in the season’s most critical moment. But he had been in this position before.
During an illustrious tenure with the Yankees, Hernandez pitched in six postseasons in seven years, winning three World Series rings, logging more than 100 playoff innings and bringing a 2.65 ERA playoff ERA into this least enviable of situations that night at Fenway Park.
Guillen opted for playoff experience over regular-season results. And boy, did it work.
“There’s 45,000 people in the stands with tight a-------,” White Sox pitching coach Don Cooper told Our Chuck Garfien years later in an NBC Sports Chicago interview. “Every fan’s got the tight a------. Every coach, every player’s got the tight a------.
“The only a------ that wasn’t tight was El Duque’s.”
Hernandez did the impossible, and he did it in the most dramatic fashion imaginable. With Fenway in a frenzy, he got Jason Varitek to pop out, coaxed the same result from Tony Graffanino to close out a 10-pitch at-bat and struck out Johnny Damon on a check swing to finish a seven-pitch at-bat, the latter two both going to full counts.
It was an escape act of epic proportions, one that carved El Duque into White Sox history and chiseled him into the statue that stands outside Guaranteed Rate Field.
“Tremendous inning under the highest amount of pressure that you can have as a baseball player,” Cooper said. “What’s worse? Bases loaded, nobody out in a playoff game. The stadium’s packed, and the whole world is watching the game. And he came through.
“The most important inning in White Sox history? Is it fair to say? I think so.”
Considering what followed, that might strike some as a tad hyperbolic. After all, if the White Sox coughed up that narrow lead in the sixth inning of Game 3, they still had three more innings to stage a comeback attempt. Even if they lost Game 3, they had two more games to win the series. And there were two more rounds of playoffs standing between a series win in Boston and ending an 88-year championship drought.
But Cooper’s right.
This entire postseason run was full of unforgettable moments. Tadahito Iguchi hit a go-ahead three-run homer two days before El Duque’s heroics. In the next round, A.J. Pierzynski swung and missed and ran to first base to turn the ALCS on its head. In the World Series, Paul Konerko, Scott Podsednik and Geoff Blum hit home runs permanently etched into the collective memory of the South Side.
But those were single swings of the bat. Hernandez had to grit through three at-bats when any slip up would have meant a tie game or worse. With nobody out, an early mistake could have snowballed into a huge inning for the Red Sox.
Not only did Hernandez escape the sixth inning. He pitched the seventh and eight, too. All in all, he retired nine of 10 batters, striking out four of them over those three innings. All with only a one-run lead. It doesn’t get any more clutch than that.
“He’s probably got the most heart of any pitcher I’ve ever been around,” Konerko told ESPN’s Erin Andrews after the game.
And why was he the guy to do it? Because he’d been there before.
He just wanted to make sure he didn’t have to be there again.
“(After the game), Duque comes over to me and says, ‘Cooper, one thing I’ll tell you. It’s OK next time if you bring me in with one guy on base. It’s even OK if you bring me in with two guys on base. But no more with three!’”
Keep reliving the White Sox march to the 2005 World Series with #SoxRewind, which features Game 1 of the ALCS, airing at 7 p.m. Tuesday on NBC Sports Chicago.