CHICAGO -- Shortly before Chicago beat Los Angeles 2-1 in the most bizarre Illinois finish that didn't involve disputed votes out of Cook County, White Sox starter Mark Buehrle made it clear that he was in this contest for the long haul.
After dispatching the Angels in the top of the ninth inning in Game 2 of the ALCS, Buehrle returned to the Chicago dugout and told pitching coach Don Cooper that he was ready to pull a Jack Morris and come out for the 10th inning. What the heck; he'd only thrown 99 pitches, and he was having too much fun to take a seat and watch.
While it's a moot point now, you have to wonder if Buehrle wasn't prepared to pull a Juan Marichal and go, say, 16 innings if necessary.
"I felt good out there," Buehrle said later. "This was probably one of the best games of my career."
Chicago third baseman Joe Crede made it academic with a game-winning double after a disputed call by home plate umpire Doug Eddings, and Buehrle instantly transformed himself from winning pitcher to head cheerleader. Shortly after 10 p.m. local time, he stood near the home team dugout in a warmup jacket with a white towel draped over his shoulder, waving his arms and exhorting the 41,013 fans at U.S. Cellular Field to stay all night if they pleased.
Buehrle, who went 16-8 in the regular season and was the starting and winning pitcher for the American League in the All-Star Game, is entertaining in a very left-handed sort of way. He's been known to do belly-flops on the tarp during rain delays and insert his cleat in his mouth just for the heck of it. In one memorable stretch this season, he generated headlines by insinuating that a veteran pitcher on the North Side of Chicago was guilty of throwing spitballs, then accused the Texas Rangers of cheating at their home park in Arlington. Buehrle denied that he was referring to Greg Maddux as the spitballer, and never apologized to the Rangers.
Still, it is Buehrle's adherence to the Ray Miller pitching mantra -- work fast, change speeds, throw strikes -- that sets him apart professionally.
On the mound, Buehrle is a human fast-forward button, the anti-Steve Trachsel. He makes teammates alert and concessionaires cringe, and allows parents to plan family outings at the ballpark without jeopardizing the kids' ability to catch the school bus in the morning.
In a 2-1 victory over Seattle in mid-April, Buehrle dispatched the Mariners on three hits in one-hour, 39 minutes. It was the fastest major-league game since Atlanta and San Diego played a 1:39 quickie in 1984.
"We thought it was still in the second inning, and all of a sudden -- ballgame," said Chicago outfielder Aaron Rowand. "I've been watching him and playing with him since we were in Double-A, and the guy never ceases to amaze me."
After looking so absent-minded and ineffectual in the series opener against the Angels, the White Sox knew they'd need a big outing from Buehrle. He established from the outset that he was on top of his game. During a particularly impressive stretch in the first and second innings, he threw 13 consecutive strikes before missing with a pitch to Robb Quinlan.
Buehrle's principal weapons are a fastball, cutter and a changeup, but he unveiled a new toy against the Angels. "We haven't thrown a lot of curveballs all year, and he's always telling me, 'Hey, let's throw some more curveballs,'" said White Sox catcher A.J. Pierzynski. "He had a good one in the pen tonight, so we were like, 'What the hell, let's try it.'"
Buehrle needed to be sharp in light of the competition. Angels starter Jarrod Washburn, operating at about 75 percent because of a case of strep throat, was equally effective at working the corners and keeping the Chicago hitters off balance. It was a case of two competitive lefties in No. 56 jerseys matching smarts and strikes.
But while Buehrle maintained his high-80s velocity throughout, allowing only a solo homer to Quinlan, Washburn eventually lost his leg drive and fell victim to attrition. When he plunked Tadahito Iguchi to load the bases in the fifth, Angels manager Mike Scioscia mercifully lifted him for middle man Brendan Donnelly.
"I told Mike before the game, 'I'll give you as much as I've got until I run out of gas,'" Washburn said. "But it was hard standing up out there at the end. My legs were like jelly."
The disappointing result was a continuation of Washburn's buzzard luck this season. He finished with an 8-8 record in part because of forearm tendinitis that dogged him in September. But in his 29 starts, the Angels gave him a mere 3.81 runs worth of support per game.
"The guy was on his deathbed a couple of days ago," said Angels first baseman Darin Erstad. "He's battling a sore arm and he still went out there and did a great job. Unfortunately, we haven't scored a stinking run for him all year. I feel bad for him."
The Angels might want to chuck their sympathy for a more aggressive mindset at the plate. In two games against Chicago in this series, the Los Angeles lineup has scored a total of four runs, and Vladimir Guerrero has hit the ball out of the infield once in eight at-bats. As a team, the Angels are batting .190 and still looking for their first walk.
Then again, Jose Contreras and Buehrle probably had something to do with it. Even Washburn, looking pale and gaunt in the clubhouse after the game, expressed admiration for Buehrle and his artistry in reflecting upon the events of Wednesday night.
"With Mark it's nothing but, 'Here it comes -- hit it," Washburn said. "I love watching him pitch."
Washburn, White Sox fans and a clubhouse-full of Buehrle's teammates are in complete accord on that sentiment.