Element of surprise gone for Sox
If expectations were low entering Robin Ventura's first season, they aren't now
CHICAGO -- Back in 1930, the first daytime radio soap opera, "Painted Dreams," aired in Chicago. Eighty-one years later, the city was treated to an even juicier baseball reality show on the South Side of Chicago.
"The Kenny and Ozzie Show" was canceled last fall and in its place, "Leave it to Robin" has debuted if not to boffo ratings, then at least to some measure of critical acclaim.
When examining the early success of Robin Ventura's White Sox, it's easy, and not altogether wrong, to dramatize the end of the Ozzie Guillen/Kenny Williams feud as a reason for a first-place first half, or to attribute the success to their new manager and his quieter, no-drama clubhouse culture.
When you talk to anyone on the Sox, there is a practical sense of expectations drawing on past experiences. The veterans know how quickly things can turn. It's good that their success has been transitory so far. The Sox finished the first half with a loss, but won 11 of their past 15. No reason to get a big head.
"There are a lot of distractions in this game," the team's designated talker Paul Konerko said. "It has a lot of ups and downs, and you can get off-course pretty easy. [The coaching staff] just kind of drilled it home in the spring, whether we have a great day yesterday or a bad day, all they want us to do is show up and play the same. Don't be bringing baggage, good or bad, to the game, or from last year. It's just worked out where we've got some wins and we're in first place. It's a byproduct of the way everyone is going after it."
I like to think the real reason for the Sox's successes is the increased personal responsibility we've seen from the players who struggled last year. The coaching staff has helped set the atmosphere and the players have responded.
There are no contractual or respect issues among the coaches and front office. (It wasn't just Ozzie, folks.) And the team is full of players looking to improve on their failures.
Adam Dunn didn't stink last year because Guillen didn't believe in him. Same thing goes for Alex Rios, who had a spat with Williams. Jake Peavy needed to start the season healthy to get his mojo back. Gordon Beckham is still searching for his true major league identity.
Dunn was embarrassed about his failures last season, so was Rios about his. They knew they were better than their worst selves. Peavy just needed to get right. Those three were the keys to the Sox achieving (notice the absence of a prefix), and that has gone as scripted.
Ventura and his coaching staff, with pitching coach Don Cooper and first base coach Harold Baines the holdovers from the previous regime, can provide the perfect clubhouse feng shui and all the coaching bromides they can concoct, but it's up to the Sox to implement it on the field. Both sides seems to be working in synchronization.
"We've been playing really smart," catcher A.J. Pierzynski said after Friday's win over Toronto. "We've been really focusing on that since the beginning of spring training. Just the fundamental stuff, hitting the cutoff man, not letting teams take the extra base. And tonight that paid off in the ninth inning on the ball [Adam] Lind hit, [Dayan] Viciedo threw the ball to second, kept him at first and we got the double play to end the game. But that's just something that we really put a focus on this year and it seems to be paying off."
For a team that couched its season expectations with an ad campaign that implored fans "Appreciate the Game," the Sox went into the break in first place for the second time in the past five seasons. Detroit was supposed to run away with the division this season, but the Tigers sit in third place at the break, just 3 1/2 games back.
The addition of Kevin Youkilis might be looked at as the turning point. Certainly the former MVP candidate and World Series vet has helped stabilize the Sox -- they're 9-4 since trading for him -- and he's seemingly fixed two trouble spots, the second spot in the order and third base. His tunnel-vision attitude might also come to represent the team's no-nonsense mentality.
Youkilis proved conventional wisdom correct by rejuvenating his season since coming from Boston. He has driven a run in his last seven games -- four go-ahead RBIs in a row -- and tallied three homers and 14 RBIs in 13 games. Youkilis had 14 RBIs in 42 games with Boston. The effect of his addition is probably comparable to that of Ventura, who, with his blend of baseball acumen and "guy's guy" personality, meshed immediately with his players.
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The Sox, however, are far from being in pole position going into the second half thanks to an uncertain pitching staff. John Danks doesn't know when he's coming back, Phil Humber should be back soon, but he hasn't been commanding since his no-hitter. Gavin Floyd runs hot and cold.
"Well I think we need to get healthy," Ventura said of second-half expectations. "We have a lot of guys on the DL. I don't know if we're looking to change anything. Guys are playing well. For me looking at it, we need to get guys healthy and back in there. We have a lot of young guys called up and put into action. But if we get healthy things look a lot better."
Don't bet against the Sox adding some arms. I, for one, have never believed in Williams rebuilding this team. He's too competitive and the team was too laden with veterans to really tear it down. Chairman Jerry Reinsdorf and his partners know they got a steal in Youkilis, paying just $2 million of his remaining salary, and even with minimal fan support (the Sox are averaging 23,106 fans a game, the sixth-worst average in baseball), the Sox will spend in the right situation. They've proven that.
But perhaps, given the team's reliance on rookies (10 on the current roster), the team could find help in the minors thanks to a key trade. When the Sox sent Carlos Quentin to San Diego, they picked up two starters in Pedro Hernandez and Simon Castro. After strong starts in Double-A, both were recently promoted to Triple-A Charlotte. Don't bet against Castro, a 6-foot-5, 230-pound right-hander, getting a chance sometime this season.
The Sox have thrived under low expectations. How will they handle a second half in the lead, beginning with a long road trip?
Tune in next week and for the rest of the season, which, really, is just getting started.
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