CHICAGO -- It’s hard to deny that there is a new energy surrounding the Chicago White Sox this season, and it is emanating from more than one source.
Adam Eaton has been an obvious focal point because of his determination to get the most out of his ability. Jose Abreu arrived with a work ethic that made itself known even before he faced his first pitch in spring training. Alexei Ramirez arrived with a renewed focus that has made him one of the top hitters in the American League in the early going.
So even on a night when Abreu was held relatively in check (two hits, one RBI), the White Sox offense was still able to get the better of the Tampa Bay Rays in a 7-3 victory that gave Chicago three victories in the four-game series.
“Our big focal point in spring training was to compete every pitch,” Eaton said. “You compete every pitch, it doesn’t matter if it’s rainy, it’s colder than all get out, if it's beautiful out, if you compete every pitch and you lay it all out there, that’s all you can do -- and I think that’s what we’re doing and we need to continue to do. We need to do that in July and August and September; that’s when it really matters. We’ll continue to do that and then focus on that and I think we’ll be just fine.”
Andre Rienzo made it two victories in two outings by rebounding from a slow start to hold the Rays in check. Alejandro De Aza emerged from his April struggles to hit his first home run since the third game of the season. Marcus Semien delivered a go-ahead RBI double with two outs in a two-run fourth inning.
Semien had just been moved down to the No. 9 hole in the lineup, a switch that came about largely due to his high strikeout total. But if the slight demotion bothered him, he wasn’t showing it.
“Yeah, personally wherever I’m at in the lineup, I’m happy to be there and would do the same thing: try to put together good at-bats, get on base, get pitches to drive,” Semien said. “Your mentality shouldn’t change with where you are in the lineup.”
And wherever the White Sox seem to be in the lineup, there is a hot hitter waiting to get the job done. Everyone has taken notice, especially those who have witnessed the changes first hand.
The team is so different from last season that Rays manager Joe Maddon raved about the new look before Monday’s game. As the Rays broadcast team was heading to the team bus for their trip to Boston, they ticked off a laundry list of things the White Sox are doing so much better than in 2013.
“It started in spring training, with just the mentality of tough at-bats, putting pressure on [opponents] consistently and having opportunities,” manager Robin Ventura said. “It’s shown up with [Abreu] swinging the bat the way he does, Eaton with speed at the top and Semien what he’s doing already with opportunity. A lot of guys feel like they’re going to do something when they get up there.”
On Monday, that vibe even extended to the pitching staff, the half of the team that hasn’t tapped this new energy just yet. First it was Rienzo getting on track after coughing up two runs in the opening inning, then it was reliever Zach Putnam following with two scoreless innings.
Putnam has delivered 4 2/3 scoreless innings over his past two outings and has gone at least two innings in each of his first four appearances since being called up from Triple-A Charlotte.
Even the pitching staff has been in awe of the offense, including a guy like Putnam, who wasn’t even here in 2013 to compare that to what he sees now.
“It’s exciting,” Putnam said. “We have so much firepower in this lineup, it’s crazy. It has been fun just in the short time I’ve been here, watching offense work and score runs. Hopefully they continue to do it throughout the rest of the season.”
For all of the good things going for the White Sox, their record is still a modest 14-13. But last season after 27 games they were 12-15 and about to lose six of their next nine. With the Detroit Tigers coming to town for a quick two-game series, the White Sox find themselves just a game behind their division rivals for first place in the American League Central.
Nobody is about to print playoff tickets anytime soon, but just being near the top of the heap instead of the bottom is a breath of fresh air the White Sox needed.
“We don’t look at the record too much, we were about competing every pitch,” Eaton said. “But taking the [Rays] series is great. That’s what you look forward to doing. You want to take three out of four from everyone or two out of three. We’ll take it and we’ve gotta look forward to Detroit.”