Calm before September storm
Steady approach of Ventura and White Sox about to be put to test in final month
BALTIMORE -- Robin Ventura is aware of the skepticism, aware of all the experts picking the Detroit Tigers to waste the Chicago White Sox this weekend in Detroit and ultimately take control of the AL Central.
The Tigers were everybody's darlings when spring training began, and have remained so, it seems, even though the White Sox as a team have pitched better, had more timely hitting, gotten more out of a string of young and unproven players who have been remarkably steady so far in the second half of the season.
Still, it's the Tigers most baseball folks seem to be riding with as August turns to September, especially with the White Sox having just dropped three of four here to the Baltimore Orioles.
"I've been hearing it all year," Ventura said Thursday before he and his team headed for Detroit. "I've been hearing people pick the Tigers. They should -- with the players Detroit has."
There wasn't any gamesmanship in Ventura's voice, just the rational observation that the White Sox are in the ring with a worthy adversary, an equal. But it's not like Ventura was conceding anything either, saying, "I've been on teams like that where it just didn't come together and teams like that where it did. But I do know this: We realize we can play with anybody."
When asked if this was something that hit him during the recent three-game sweep of the New York Yankees in Chicago, Ventura said, "I actually felt it before the Yankees series, in that series [July 3-5] when we swept Texas."
The last time the White Sox had a hiccup on the road, when they were swept in Kansas City, they responded with back-to-back sweeps of the Yankees and Seattle Mariners. Now, having lost three of four to the Orioles, they head to Detroit, where they were swept five weeks ago.
The prevailing mood as the White Sox spent their final day in Baltimore, as they prepared for the official start to a September pennant race was calm. Like their skipper, Ventura. Paul Konerko, who missed by one season playing with Ventura when he first joined the White Sox, talked Thursday about "everybody buying into Robin's approach -- which is not letting today affect yesterday. I think we're just at a place where we want to play this stretch the same way. The attitude is, what we've done for five months, let's do it for one more month. Let's not change anything."
It was well-chronicled how different Ventura, almost placid, is from excitable Ozzie Guillen. It's a theme that can easily be overstated, except that teams in a great many cases take on their managers' personalities, or at least aspects of their personalities.
I've been hearing it all year. I've been hearing people pick the Tigers. ... They should -- with the players Detroit has.” -- Robin Ventura
Konerko looked back at the difficult losses the team has had this season (such as the sweep in Kansas City or two crushing losses in Boston) and said, "Each time there's been a fork in the road we've shown some resilience. I think that has to do with there being not a moment of panic from Robin or the rest of the staff. But that's always been Robin's rep: stable, sure of himself. That makes its way down the line. He's consistent. Knowing X's and O's is one thing, but managing people is another. He's a natural at that. Calm and cool at all times. Nobody in here is surprised at that. That's a given."
It seems the smart way to go into not just Detroit but into September, especially with so many young players, including Addison Reed, Nate Jones, Chris Sale, Jose Quintana and Dayan Viciedo. Alex Rios talked about younger players thriving under those calm clubhouse conditions. Konerko added, "We've got a lot of guys in their first real big league season as full-time players. It's one thing to do well, meaning you don't get sent down; it's another to play well in the stress of a pennant race."
Of course, Ventura is new to that race as a manager, although he said with a laugh, "People act like I went from T-ball to Little League and then to manage in the majors. This is what I did for a living. I'll admit, sending guys down [as he had to do with Dylan Axelrod after that fabulous performance here Wednesday night] is harder than I expected but I think I got lucky with guys who are easier to manage than maybe others."
Who knows, maybe the White Sox are getting lucky with a manager who's well suited for the demands of a September race. You won't read any declarations in this space; there's too much baseball left. But anything, certainly something as big as the manager, can tip the scale when things are as even as they appear to be between the Tigers and White Sox.
OK, the White Sox are clearly better in run differential, if you prefer that as an indicator, plus-73 to Detroit's plus-30. But there's little to choose from in terms of team ERA (Tigers 3.92 to White Sox 3.98) or OPS (Tigers .761 to White Sox .742). The White Sox are better in one-run games (22-16 to the Tigers' 17-19) but maybe that means the White Sox have blown more saves (18, though that was before the emergence of Reed) than the Tigers (12).
There's little if anything to hang your hat on statistically, which is why you start looking at factors like a team's demeanor and why it might or might not be playing closer to its potential over a long season.
But one thing that's very tangible is that the White Sox haven't played well in Detroit, "and it's frustrating not playing well there," Konerko said. "We've got to change that trend. That alone won't win anything for you, if we played poorly after that and gave it all back. But I think we've got a pretty good grip on how to go about it. We're not going to give it away. I don't see us having a breakdown in terms of that."
Ventura thought the philosophy of managing not only results is important, but also expectations and reactions.
"Every week you go through a stretch that could ruin you, find you feeling pretty good, or just keeping your head afloat," he said.
With seven games remaining with the Tigers in the regular season, beginning Friday night in Detroit, we're going to find just how calm Ventura and his White Sox can be and just how much it matters.