Can White Sox win despite sinkholes?

August, 17, 2011
8/17/11
10:00
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There are a few things to be said about a Sox-Indians game that had to go 14 innings to deliver an 8-7 result, not least that both teams still entertain hopes to contend in baseball’s most reliably combative division, the AL Central. While the Detroit Tigers notched another win in a Justin Verlander start and can now look forward to four days of playing back down to the level of their competition by trying to win as often as they lose, Cleveland and Chicago have to suffer through banging away at one another in this week’s series.

It’s better news still for the Kitties if what victories are won between the Sox and the Tribe are pyrrhic, and Tuesday’s result certainly looks like that sort of outcome. Because of the extra innings created by bad umpiring, worse outfield defense and Sergio Santos’ blown save in the ninth, both teams had to use their entire bullpens, with the Indians finally reaching into their rotation to plug in David Huff as their eighth reliever on the evening. This was not what the Indians traded for when they acquired Ubaldo Jimenez, but after receiving two bad starts in three, it’s what they have to show for the deal so far.

Even though the Sox delivered 22 hits, including five triples -- their most since the Black Sox were still on the field for the South Side back in 1920 -- the remarkable thing is that the game was a draining thing to get through to reach a decision, reflecting the mediocrity of the teams and the division.

For the Sox, a big part of the reason they’re struggling to be anything more than a .500 team is their offense. Dan Szymborski did a nifty piece a few weeks back for Insider on the lack of balance in the Tigers’ lineup, because Jim Leyland’s club was getting horribly subpar performance from several lineup slots. Now that we’re down to the season’s final six weeks, the White Sox have their rivals beat for imbalance, because while Paul Konerko’s delivering another down-ballot MVP campaign and Carlos Quentin’s enjoying a great comeback campaign, there are four lineup slots delivering awful offense. Consider what the Sox are getting from their second and third basemen, their center and left fielders, and Adam Dunn, the man sharing first base and DH duties with Konerko:



Using Alex Rios in center, Brent Morel at third, Gordon Beckham at second, Juan Pierre in left and Dunn if you consider him a DH, the only thing keeping the Sox from having MLB’s worst-hitting performers at three everyday lineup slots is Chone Figgins’ horrendous season for the Mariners at third base. Rarely has the cost for breaking in a pair of youngsters like Beckham and Morel been so steep, although three years and more than 1,300 plate appearances into his career, Becks has become a long-term investment as bad as most mortgages these days. Although the Sox aren’t the worst when it comes to scoring fewer runs than expected -- they've scored 16 fewer runs than expected, given their overall hitting numbers -- they’re close.

The irony is that in Tuesday’s game the Sox got performance out of their non-performers, a reminder that even the worst among the best ballplayers can play. Morel had his first-ever four-hit day; it took seven at-bats, but it counts. Beckham set himself up to score the winning run with a one-out double in the 14th -- which invited some boos from Sox fans greedily asking for a sixth triple, but it was enough. And Pierre was the man of the hour -- whether the second or sixth or both in Tuesday’s extended action -- after hitting a rare homer off Jimenez in the fourth, and decisively slapping the winning single to left. Even Rios chipped in, coming off the bench as a defensive replacement for Carlos Quentin and hitting one of the triples -- only to wind up stranded at third base.

[+] EnlargeJuan Pierre
AP Photo/Charles Rex ArbogastJuan Pierre's single in the 14th inning Tuesday night lifted the White Sox to an 8-7 victory over the Indians.
Afterward, asked about the triple shower raining in the Indians’ outfield, Ozzie Guillen was unwilling to add insult to indignity for the opposition, pointing out prosaically enough that, “We advanced those runners, took advantage of those mistakes.” Well, sure they did, but between Shin-Soo Choo’s struggles in right and an obviously stretched Kosuke Fukudome tasked with center-field duties, the Sox got to put on a clinic of how to exploit a bad defense with balls in play.

Pierre took the outcome -- and his homer -- with good humor, noting that when he stepped up with Beckham and Morel aboard in the bottom of the 14th, he was wondering if any Ozzieball was in the offing, but, “I didn’t see the squeeze sign.” About his 16th career home run, he observed, “I can’t explain it. Not too many of them come off my bat. I was just trying to put it in play. Once -- and if -- I get to 20, we can start talking about 25.”

Pierre might also have sounded a bit like a stathead when he dispelled any notion that he’s doing anything differently in the second half while hitting .336/.369/.426. “I’m not trying to do too much. I’m not doing anything different. I’ve looked at the tape and I’m doing everything the same.”

So much for the hot hand if Pierre is just keepin’ on keeping on, but as a guy who lives and dies on ball-in-play outcomes, what would you expect? It’s the sound of the voice of experience talking about hitting the way he knows how after a long night.

Can the Sox fix their lineup-wide problem? Not easily or soon, which might help explain GM Kenny Williams’ glum outlook. Thanks to the gambles Williams has already taken, they’re stuck with Dunn and Rios through 2014 for more than $80 million combined. If Morel and Beckham don’t step up, the Sox won’t be getting much help from home-grown talent at pre-arbitration prices -- pushing the Sox toward free-agent fixes who might be no better than Dunn or Mark Teahen. Pierre is free agency-bound, but given his $8.5 million price tag for 2011, even offering him arbitration to potentially recoup draft picks would be a risk not worth running. That’s the wreckage of a win-now team that isn’t.

Christina Kahrl covers baseball for ESPN.com. You can follow her on Twitter.

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