August can be the cruelest month

Jim Thome hates days off. At least that's what he tells himself this time of the year.

"When I have a day off, that's when I get tight," Thome said. "Sometimes I'd rather we didn't ever have a day off. That's when things get tight or lock up."

Take anything Thome says with a grain of salt, however. He's been playing 16 years, more than enough to learn how to survive through the grind of a long season, especially in a playoff race.

The key, he says, is to trick yourself. No matter what the thermometer, calendar or your aching joints say, the key is to convince yourself that it's May 15, sunny and 78 degrees, and that you feel great. The players who hold up the best, says Thome, are the ones who take care of their bodies and play tricks on their own minds.

"This is the toughest time of year: August and September," Thome said. "Everybody has some kind of nicks and hurts because it's such a long season. … Mentally, that's what you fight -- not just the physical side but the mental side. I believe when you're in the [batter's] box, or even when you're coming to the park to start your day, mentally you're going to have to talk yourself out of giving in to the fact that you are tired and you are hurting."

Thome and his White Sox teammates certainly didn't appear to be hurting over the weekend, when they swept a three-game series from the Detroit Tigers after taking two of three against the New York Yankees. In a span of six days, they won five games in which they faced starters Chien-Ming Wang, Mike Mussina, Justin Verlander, Kenny Rogers and Zach Miner, who entered those starts with a combined record of 58-22.

That's impressive. But it won't mean much if they can't keep grinding out victories during a merciless schedule. They are in a stretch in which they play games on 24 consecutive days and 56 games in the last 59 days of the season.

"Every game we play is going to be a big game,'' White Sox manager Ozzie Guillen said. "We know that no one is going to feel sorry for us because of the schedule. Everybody has a tough schedule. That's the way the baseball season is. It's long and it's hard and nobody really cares. Players make a lot of money and fly first class.''

"Everybody has a tough schedule. That's the way the baseball season is. It's long and it's hard and nobody really cares. Players make a lot of money and fly first class."
-- White Sox manager Ozzie Guillen

August can be baseball's cruelest month, with injuries piling up for some teams, while others sail through. There might seem to be a randomness to it, but seasoned players have learned how to keep themselves in top shape during the toughest times of the season.

"Go to the gym,'' Detroit Tigers catcher Ivan Rodriguez said. "Stay strong, stay healthy. You have to learn how to keep yourself out there playing day after day, nine innings a day, hard. That's basically it. There might be times when you are tired, but you know that the other guys are tired too -- and some of them might not be taking care of themselves, either.''

Thome says he makes a point of drinking more water and getting his rest late in the season.

"Your body is not going to bounce back like it did in April and May,'' he said. "You have to know that and use common sense. I think that's something everybody learns the hard way when they're younger.''

Thome and Rodriguez have been blessed by being on more contenders than also-rans in their careers. Dan Plesac wasn't as lucky. He made only one postseason appearance in an 18-year career in which he played for the Brewers, Cubs, Pirates, Blue Jays, Diamondbacks and Phillies.

"You hear people talk about the dog days as being in August, but for me the real dog days were in September, with your team out of the race and college football on the clubhouse TV,'' said Plesac, now a broadcaster for Comcast SportsNet in Chicago. "You'd get to the ballpark, and it would seem like players would be talking about everything except baseball. That's hard. You've got to go play a game that might not mean much to anybody, but it's your job and you want to do your best.''

Thome says players always have an obligation to play hard no matter the standings. But he says players on contending teams can be carried along by the adrenaline of being involved in significant games. And if that doesn't work, then it's time to trick yourself.

Here's a look at some of the contenders who join the White Sox in getting little time off the rest of the season:

• The Yankees. Like the White Sox, they have only three days off the rest of the way -- only two in September. They might have the most physically demanding schedule of all, however, because they still have two doubleheaders to play (Friday at Boston and Sept. 16 against Boston in New York).

• The Mets. It's a good thing they are cruising toward the playoffs because they play 33 of the last 34 days of the regular season. They have only three days off the rest of the way -- only one after Aug. 28.

• The Twins. They were off on Monday but now have only three days off the rest of the year, with only one of those in September. It comes on Sept. 18, during a 10-game trip, making their final day off at home on Aug. 28.

• The Phillies (honest, they are a contender). They have only three games off the rest of the season and play 31 games in a stretch of 31 days from Aug. 11 through Sept. 10, including a Sept. 2 doubleheader against Atlanta.

Phil Rogers is the national baseball writer for the Chicago Tribune, which has a Web site at www.chicagosports.com. His book, "Say It's So," a story about the 2005 White Sox, is available at bookstores, through amazon.com or direct order from Triumph Publishing (800-222-4657).