Just about the time the Chicago White Sox began to wonder if they’d ever win another game, they got one matchup they loved - Big Hurt vs. High Heat.
And no sooner had Frank Thomas begun to question whether anyone in baseball had the courage to throw him a fastball for a strike, the Seattle Mariners sent him reliever Bill Risley.
Risley would throw fastballs to anyone.
Thomas can hit them against almost anyone, given one key criteria: The pitch has to be over the plate.
On Monday, one of Risley’s was - briefly - and Thomas hammered it 416 feet for a two-run, game-winning home run in the eighth inning of what became the White Sox’s 8-6 victory.
After watching his troops rally from a five-run deficit to tie the game in the fifth inning, manager Lou Piniella had given starter Tim Belcher the night off and tried to keep Chicago at bay with his bullpen while awaiting another Mariners rally.
He was kept waiting until the ninth, when Seattle cut into a three-run deficit by scoring once and then loading the bases with two out.
“We had one big inning - five hits - and one other chance there in the ninth,” Piniella said. “Other than that, we didn’t do much. We’re going to have to change the lineup, get some offense in there. This was another game that was there to be won.”
Tied in the top of the fifth, Dave Fleming followed Belcher and pitched three shutout innings, then tried to tack on a fourth. He walked the last man he faced, Tim Raines, to bring up Thomas with nobody out in the eighth. Piniella went to Risley and reminded the right-hander of pitching coach Bobby Cuellar’s pregame admonition on Thomas - keep the ball inside.
Risley didn’t. The 94-mph fastball he threw Thomas got to the big first baseman well out over the plate. Thomas, coming off back-toback most valuable player seasons, did what a back-to-back MVP hitter should. He crushed it.
“I put it where I wanted it, a little high and on the inner part of the plate. But he’d backed off the plate,” Risley said. “I should have noticed that, but I didn’t.”
“I knew he was going to be aggressive,” Thomas said. “After what we’ve been through, all you can do is come out and be aggressive or roll over and die.”
“It wasn’t inside enough, was it?” Piniella asked.