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Forget Houston

In case you didn't notice, the sun did rise again this morning. Thankfully, the rotation of the Earth is far more predictable than the White Sox starting rotation as displayed last weekend in Houston. Judging from some of the reaction on social media, this item requires reinforcement.

The consternation and hand-wringing resulting from the four-game thrashing administered by the Astros should be expected, but let's be realistic. Had most fans been told prior to the season that on the first day of summer, despite the extended absences of Eloy Jiménez and Luis Robert, the Sox would be 14 games above .500 with a 2½-game lead in the AL Central, back-slapping, high fives, the pouring of another shot likely would have been in order.

It matters not that the team has battered opponents with less than .500 records to the tune of 26-6 while going 17-23 against the stouter fellows. A win is a win, no matter if it's by a run - the Sox are 8-9 in those nail-biters - or a blowout of at least five runs in which the Sox are 14-5.

This in no way can hide the fact that the Astros, winners of seven games in a row and 11 of their last 13, basically tramped all over Tony La Russa's crew. Before venturing to South Texas, the Sox closed out a home series against Tampa Bay, another division leader, by nipping the Rays 8-7 in 10 innings last Wednesday, giving the Sox a 2-1 edge in the series.

In the four games in Houston, the Sox could muster just eight more runs over all four games combined. Aside from Carlos Rodón, starting pitchers Dylan Cease, Lance Lynn and Dallas Keuchel were fresh meat for the hard-hitting Astros. And the defensive breakdowns were painful to witness.

However, four games do not a season make. Besides, how about those vaunted Tampa Bay Rays who invaded the Grate last week with the league's top record? Maybe they figured a trip out to Seattle would be the remedy for getting whipped by the Sox, but they were swept by the Mariners, a team of prospects and guys you never heard of. Those Rays, respected because they play the game "right," now have lost five in a row and trail the Red Sox by a half-game.

Or look at the Yankees, the prognosticators' pick to win the AL East and quite possibly the World Series. Approaching the midway point of the season, the New Yorkers are just five games above the break-even point, trailing both Boston and Tampa Bay.

Even last year's champion Dodgers haven't figured out a way to overtake the surprising San Francisco Giants, who for some unfathomable reason own baseball's best record of 46-26, after trailing Los Angeles by 14 games at the end of last season's abbreviated 60-game schedule.

There are additional reasons not to fret, one being the division in which the Sox reside. So far Cleveland has offered the most resistance, but their top two pitchers, last season's Cy Young winner Shane Bieber and Zach Plesac, are inactive because of injuries. Each is at least two weeks away from returning.

The Sox have scored more runs than Cleveland (349-301), and Sox pitchers have the better ERA of 3.32 to the Tribe's 4.17. Nevertheless, so far Cleveland has beaten the Sox in six of 11 games, so the remaining eight contests between the two clubs very well could tell the final story of 2021.

Overall, the Sox have pummeled their division rivals, winning 24 of 36 encounters. Of the remaining 90 games on the schedule, 40 will be against Central Division foes.

Coming up this week are two games in Pittsburgh before the team returns to the Grate for a three-game clash against the aforementioned Mariners. The Sox are labeling the weekend as a "Re-Opening" since capacity restrictions have been removed.

The resiliency of La Russa's charges obviously will be tested but, of course, even the last-place Pirates record can't be taken for granted since they just took two-of-three against Cleveland last weekend.

With the major injuries that the Sox have endured so far this season, they've managed to field a patchwork lineup many days with La Russa moving personnel all over the diamond. The Sox manager has been continually chided for his strategy of employing bunts, hit-and-runs, and handling of players. Some of this criticism is well-deserved.

However, the crucial job of deciding who is going to play and where is something the Sox skipper has displayed notable skill at, or maybe just plain good luck. Players like Jake Lamb, Billy Hamilton and now Brian Goodwin, none of whom figured to be on a big league roster this season, have played important roles in a few of the Sox victories.

Once Adam Engel got healthy, he figured to be the team's everyday centerfielder. However, Engel has started in centerfield in just eight of the 14 games since he was activated off the injured list. Until last weekend, the Sox were 8-2 since Engel's return. La Russa started Engel in two games of the Houston series. Engel had a hit in each of those games. No one would argue that Goodwin or Leury Garcia is a better centerfielder than Engel. Yet there is no guarantee that La Russa will pencil in Engel on a daily basis.

This is the way La Russa operates, and he's been uncanny a number of times when his choices seem questionable. Hamilton homers on two consecutive days, and Lamb's home runs have led the club to a couple of victories.

Over a 162-game schedule, the use of these place-holders figures to run its course. Yermín Mercedes is a prime example. There is a reason he's a rookie at 28. The argument that La Russa's condemnation of Mercedes in the 16-4 blowout last month caused the tailspin for the team's DH is unjustified. In his 28 games since then, Mercedes is hitting just .140 with one homer. His on-base percentage is a meager .209. His performance hasn't helped the offense in the least, and he never plays in the field.

What's hurting Mercedes, far more than his manager's verbal spanking, is swinging at pitches out of the strike zone, and the pitchers know that. They've adjusted. He hasn't. In the national TV game on Saturday, Fox seemed to take great pleasure in showing Mercedes in the dugout after another fruitless plate appearance. He's hitless in his last 21 at-bats. Yermín appeared to be pouting, sitting alone on the bench. The focus on national TV seemed unwarranted at best and cruel at worst.

Even assuming that he's been mishandled by his manager, a successful professional athlete requires a thick skin, a sense of confidence even when he or she is performing poorly. La Russa has shown a degree of trust in Mercedes by continually inserting him in the DH spot. If the funk continues, a trip to Charlotte will follow to see if a dose of Triple-A pitching is the antidote. If not, we might not see Mercedes again.

At the same time, the Sox have to rely that other marginal players don't run out of gas before Jiménez and Robert are healthy. Core players like José Abreu, Yoan Moncada, Yasmani Grandal and Tim Anderson have track records that indicate slumps and lack of production won't last very long. History is on their side. If the fringe guys can continue to contribute, the club will get back on track. That, more than the nightmarish weekend in Houston, is cause for concern.

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Former Bill Veeck bar buddy Roger Wallenstein is our White Sox correspondent. He welcomes your comments.

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Posted on Oct 11, 2021