White Sox following Ventura's lead toward playoffs

Rios' aggressiveness latest example of contender doing things the right way

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This was the kind of September slide the South Side embraced rather than feared, one that brought the White Sox nearer the playoffs instead of farther away.

This was right fielder Alex Rios, the team's most valuable player, proving it yet another way by sliding hard into second base to break up a double play in the fifth inning of Monday's 5-4 victory over the Tigers at U.S. Cellular Field.

This was Rios using his head to sacrifice his body, the latest example of smart baseball on a team that embodies the resolve and reserve of manager of the year front-runner Robin Ventura.

Rios slid so aggressively into Tigers second baseman Omar Infante that Infante's throw skipped past first baseman Prince Fielder and the Sox's fourth and fifth runs scored.

"It's a situation every second baseman sees coming,'' Rios said.

Don't look now, but, after knocking the Tigers off course, the Sox enjoy a three-game lead in the American League Central with 16 games left. Math favors the Sox. Not to mention mojo.

"If we play the right way, eventually that stuff catches up to you,'' Ventura said.

Every time the Sox do something to make their fans panic, they find poise. The previous two times the Sox won at least four straight before this current four-game winning streak, they were coming off skids too. The Sox's response to falling behind 3-0 to Tigers starter Doug Fister typified the quiet toughness they have used to overcome adversity throughout what increasingly feels like a special season.

"One thing about this team, we claw and scratch,'' Paul Konerko said.

It takes discipline to go through a six-month baseball season one at-bat at a time, one inning at a time, one game at a time, but the Sox do, in large part, because Ventura approaches every day like the last one. Before the game, Sox pitching coach Don Cooper told WSCR-AM 670 that Ventura should be manager of the year, and seeing the Sox survive their biggest win of the season illustrated why.

Whether it was Rios forcing the Tigers into a mistake or Gordon Beckham getting hit by a pitch with the bases loaded, a Sox team full of sluggers manufactured all five runs without needing a homer. The hunch Ventura played by going with Dewayne Wise instead of Alejandro De Aza as the leadoff man — "He was out of sync,'' Ventura said of De Aza — paid off when Wise drove in two runs. But Ventura left the deepest impression on the game managing the bullpen, most notably with a pitching change that showed he had learned from a mistake.

With a 5-4 lead and two outs with nobody on in the seventh Monday, Ventura brought in left-handed specialist Donnie Veal to face Fielder. Last Wednesday, with the Tigers ahead 3-1 in the seventh, Ventura opted to have lefty Leyson Septimo instead of Veal face Fielder.

It might have been Ventura's oddest bullpen decision of the year. The only thing more bizarre was Ventura's explanation that he wanted Fielder to get "a different look.'' Fielder homered off Septimo and Ventura looked silly for not bringing in Veal, against whom left-handed hitters are 0-for-the-season in 24 at-bats.

Five days later, Ventura ordered Veal. This time, Fielder struck out on five pitches and Ventura had the eighth and ninth innings set up as he planned.

"It was that situation where you're at in the game,'' Ventura explained.

Savvier decisions awaited Ventura in the ninth when the Sox used three relievers to get all three outs. Ventura made every move due to matchups and every one made sense. Five relievers combined for five scoreless innings to make a winner of Nate Jones, making the shakiest part of the Sox lately resemble their strongest.

The Sox have 18 pitchers on the expanded roster and, often curiously, Ventura seems committed to using them all. They might be the only bullpen in the league with a line to use the bathroom between innings.

"He's not scared to use anybody in any situation,'' Konerko said of Ventura.

Indeed, no other team in baseball has five rookies who have pitched more than 40 innings. The 2000 White Sox were one of four teams in baseball history to make the playoffs relying so heavily on rookie pitchers, according to FoxSports.com. The resourceful 2012 White Sox took a major step toward becoming the fifth team on a day they did the little things to give themselves a big advantage nobody takes for granted.

"If we're up three games with two to go, then I'll be really happy,'' Adam Dunn said.

Tuesday's game means even more to the Sox because Ventura said so. And on this day, like so many this memorable season, he was right about everything else.

dhaugh@tribune.com

Twitter @DavidHaugh

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