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Rios makes ‘Play of the year’

Published: Tuesday, Sept. 18, 2012 5:30 a.m. CDT

CHICAGO – Reveling in their latest comeback win, White Sox second baseman Gordon Beckham turned to teammate Alex Rios and laid out a bold statement.

“That might be the play of the year,” he said.

It wasn’t a walk-off home run or a spectacular, highlight-reel defensive play. Sure, the Sox have plenty of those moments in their unexpected quest to make the postseason. Yet a routine play – a microcosm in a game filled with clutch moments – separated the Sox from their nemesis, the Detroit Tigers.

Rios hustled toward second base with only one thing on his mind: Break up the double play to keep the fifth inning alive. Rios’ hard but clean slide did exactly that. Tigers second baseman Omar Infante, flustered by the 6-foot-5, 215-pound Rios barreling at him, delivered an errant throw to first base before crashing to the dirt. The ball skipped into Detroit’s dugout, allowing the tying and eventual winning runs to score in the Sox’s 5-4 victory Monday at U.S. Cellular Field.

In the span of 3 hours, 7 minutes, the first-place Sox went from trailing by three runs to extending their lead over the Tigers to three games in the AL Central. The minute details – running hard, finishing the play, defense – continue to separate the Sox and Tigers, who are looking more and more like playoff pretenders.

“That’s the way everybody on this team plays the game,” first baseman Paul Konerko said. “There’s some guys that can’t physically do some of that stuff, but I think the attitude, that’s our attitude to play the game hard like that. Every now and again there’s a play like that and you win a game because of it.”

Sixteen games stand between the Sox (80-66) and the playoffs, potentially their first appearance since 2008. One could argue the Tigers have a better rotation, spearheaded by Max Scherzer and reigning AL MVP Justin Verlander, which gives them the advantage down the stretch. The Sox have proved time and again their superior defense and attention to details rarely costs them games. Meanwhile, the Tigers are 0-10 in one-run games since Aug. 4.

The Sox avoided saying all the pressure is on the chasing Tigers with no meetings between the teams remaining this season. But clearly the Sox are in the driver’s seat in the hunt for the playoffs.

“There’s pressure on everybody,” Sox manager Robin Ventura said. “I don’t think even teams that are five games up, everybody has pressure. There’s nothing you can really do about it but go out and play. I don’t think it makes it easier that you’re up by two or down by two. It’s not going to change the way we play, that’s for sure.”

Monday’s win against Detroit means nothing if they go to Kansas City and get swept or at the very least lose the series. It seems ridiculous to even consider that a possibility given the Royals’ 66-80 record puts them 14 games back of the Sox. But the Royals have been unsolvable. Kansas City leads the season series 10-5 and has won seven of its past eight games and 20 of 30 against the Sox.

The three-game series that begins today continues a nine-game road trip that includes a visit to Anaheim. Detroit (77-69) heads home to face the AL wild card-leading Athletics.

“If we go to Kansas City and not play well, it’s all for naught,” slugger Adam Dunn said. “Every one is big now. Tomorrow is the biggest game of the year. I’m not going to sit here and downplay it, but if we don’t go to K.C. and Anaheim and win games, it means nothing.”

Sixteen games in 16 days will determine whether the Sox or Tigers win the division. The Sox aren’t making any excuses, either because at this point, regardless of the level of competition, every game matters.

“Three games up and one game up, it makes a big difference at this point,” Beckham said. “We obviously wanted to get out in front of them more. But that goes away the next series if we don’t go out and do what we’re capable of doing.”

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