Friday, June 3, 2011
After ugly start, Sox don't look half bad
By Melissa Isaacson ESPNChicago.com
CHICAGO -- The pregame announcement that Paul Konerko had undergone a "minor procedure" to dislodge a loose bone fragment in his left wrist late Friday afternoon put sort of a damper on the positive vibe suddenly emanating from the South Side.
The news wasn't quite as scary as it sounded, as Konerko returned to the ballpark and was even said to be available, if needed, to play late in the game against the Detroit Tigers on the first night of a 10-game White Sox homestand. Nevertheless, the last time a Sox slugger had a minor operation and was back at the ballpark quicker than expected (hint: Adam Dunn's appendectomy), he still hasn't been the same.
If not the Sox lifeline during a season in which they haven't had their heads above water since mid-April, then Konerko has certainly had a hand in keeping them from drowning, hitting .310 with 12 home runs and 44 runs batted in, good for second-best in the American League.
Granted, this season has already been historically bad, as in the worst 32-game start since 1978. But after defeating the Tigers, 6-4 Friday night at U.S. Cellular Field, the Sox, at 28-31, are actually two games ahead of where they were after 59 games last season.
Though you won't get anyone on the team or coaching staff to admit it, this series and this homestand is important, and Sox GM Kenny Williams marked the occasion by making his annual appeal to fans to support the club while also admitting it's a two-way street.
"The fact of the matter is we haven't earned our fans' patronage up to this point in the fashion that we've played, and the weather hasn't helped as well, so we're a little behind the eight ball financially," Williams said before a game in which just 23,095 showed up on a balmy Friday night.
As of now, said Williams: "We can't envision going out and getting better realistically than what we have on the field right now. So it's a very precarious situation."
Still, there is a hopefulness surrounding the team for the first time since April, some evidence that a talented team is poised to play that way.
"There's so much time left," said Gordon Beckham. "We have four months of baseball, so [seven] games [behind first-place Cleveland] goes like that, it really does. We showed it last year. Obviously we played really well, but it doesn't even have to be that. It can be just a little steady climb, just a game or two a week. A game a week and we're there, that's all we have to think about."
Here are a few more reasons to be hopeful if you're a Sox fan:
Carlos Quentin celebrates with Juan Pierre after hitting a three-run home run on Friday.
They're finally on a legitimate roll.
Coming off the three-game sweep against the Red Sox, who were second place in the AL East and six games above .500 when the series began, the White Sox had won 16 of their last 25 games going into Friday night's game.
Since falling a season-high 11 games under .500 and 11 games back of first place in the division on May 6, with the added indignity of possessing the worst record in the majors, the Sox have won 17 of their last 26 for the fourth-best record in the league and second-best in the AL behind Boston over that span.
Before May 7, the Sox were hitting a collective .234 with an on-base percentage of .304. And since May 7? Going into Friday night's game, they were hitting .278, second highest in the AL with an AL-leading 56 doubles and a second-best on-base percentage of .342.
Their schedule finally seems to give them a break.
The Sox are coming off a stretch in which they played 20 straight days, going 12-8, and played 46 games in 48 days. But after Thursday's off-day, they can look forward to three more rest days before June 28. And for the remainder of the season, they have 12 more games at home than on the road, and 23 of 35 games at home leading into the All-Star break. Six series during that span are against teams currently below .500.
Even with a less-than-stellar record at U.S. Cellular thus far (12-13), sleeping in your own bed is never a bad thing.
"We know we have a lot of games at home this summer and that's a positive thing," Beckham said. "We basically had three 10-game road trips (one an 11-game trip) and the teams we've faced have been really tough. It's only going to get a little bit easier and now that we're starting to play a little better, it's going to hopefully go in our favor."
Dunn and Rios just have to get better, don't they?
We're talking about two players who are simply never this bad.
Alex Rios, a career .281 hitter who batted .284 with 21 home runs and career-highs of 88 RBIs and 34 steals last season, came into Friday night's game 5-of-33 (.152) in his last eight games and hitting .201 with 42 hits and four home runs.
He did pick up his 14th RBI in the first inning on a fielder's choice, driving in Juan Pierre, who later made a game-saving catch at the leftfield wall with bases loaded in the eighth and hit an insurance solo homer in the bottom half of that inning.
As for Dunn, Guillen has had him avoiding lefties but had little choice but to insert him at first base for Konerko on Friday.
Hitting a buck-eighty for the season with 23 RBI, and .107 (6-of-56) in his last 17 games, Dunn went 1-for-4 against the Tigers and was roundly booed after grounding out to end the third inning with men on second and third. But he did get a few cheers in the fifth when he beat out an infield roller to snap his 0-for-40 streak against left-handers.
Admittedly feeling pressured by trying to impress his new club, you have to figure Dunn will come to life at some point. Last year was his fourth straight season with 100 or more RBIs and he ranks fourth all-time in most home runs through his first 10 seasons in the majors.
"This guy has been one of the most productive players over the course of the last seven years," Sox GM Kenny Williams said of Dunn. "If you just look at the raw numbers, he's amongst the Alex Rodriguezes and [Albert] Pujols and the [Mark] Teixeiras, These guys are run producers. This is the worst two months of [Dunn's] career. . . . It doesn't disappear overnight. He just has to get back to understanding he's a productive player. Somebody needs to remind him."
Dunn still commands respect from pitchers but there is no question that if the Sox are going to make a run at the postseason, both he and Rios will have to come through.
"[If] Rios and Dunn don't start hitting, I don't say we're going to lose, [but] it's going to be hard," Guillen said. "[Konerko], [Carlos] Quentin, right now the Missile [Alexei Ramirez] are swinging the bat good [but] they need help. Those guys in the middle need help."
Mark Buehrle and the White Sox's six-man rotation look to be a strength going forward.
"I've got six, a lot of people have two and three. I'm lucky," said Guillen of a six-man rotation he's not going to fool with for the foreseeable future. "We're doing it for health, to keep them strong all year long. Since we've had that, we've been pitching pretty good."
Since Jake Peavy joined the rotation on May 11, the Sox starting pitchers have had 13 of 21 quality starts. And John Danks is obviously due for a break.
"He's only had one really, really bad game," Guillen said of Danks. "He doesn't deserve to be 0-8. Maybe 80 percent is our offense's fault."
Phil Humber has been a pleasant surprise and if Peavy can round back to his old form and give the Sox the ace they were counting on, they could have one of the best staffs in the league. As they are now, however, they're solid with Peavy and Mark Buehrle likely to benefit most from the six-man.
"It's not just because on the six given days we send a guy out there," Williams said. "We've got somebody who can compete at a high level. It's about what that does for us come the dog days of summer, when the conventional wisdom is that many pitching staffs will be tailing off. We're hopeful by pushing our guys back a couple days here and there, even if we have to miss a start here and there for whatever reason, the guy that we have we will be as strong as we possibly can be going down the stretch."
The up-and-down bullpen has been more up lately, with Sergio Santos coming in to strike out Ramon Santiago with two men on in the eighth, then finishing the job in the ninth.
Trailing Cleveland just feels better.
It's safe to say that it's time to stop waiting for the Minnesota Twins to come around. Trailing first-place Cleveland by seven games and second-place Detroit by two and a half after Friday night's victory over the Tigers, the Sox aren't exactly where they want to be, but they're certainly within striking distance.
While it would be foolish not to take both teams seriously, the Indians look like they're about to hit their first serious rough patch. And there isn't the same mental hang-up for the Sox as there always was when chasing the Twins.
"We haven't played well and we're only eight games back of a team that seems like it's very talented, but there's always time for people to slip up," Beckham said. "There's so much time left in the season, you've just got to be positive because if you're not, No. 1, you're going to be living a pretty boring life and it's not going to be much fun to come to the park. So we're positive. . . .
"We're back in Chicago, it's warm, there's a lot to be excited about."
Melissa Isaacson is a columnist for ESPNChicago.com.