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The White Sox have outperformed what anyone could have expected this spring with 13 wins in 19 games despite scoring more runs than only one of the other 29 major league teams. We have Sox pitching primarily to thank.
However, we would be remiss if we didn't point out the generosity of the fellows providing the opposition. No, they are not friends - comrades of the same union to be sure, but in most cases not bosom buddies - but their goofy mistakes and misjudgements have played a notable role as the White Sox have more victories than any other American League contingent.
Take Friday's already legendary triple play that the Sox pulled off in the first of a three-game sweep of the West Division leader Texas Rangers. Sailing along with a 5-0 lead in the top of the seventh, Jose Quintana allowed the Rangers to load the bases on a double by Prince Fielder, a single by Adrian Beltre, and a walk to Ian Desmond. Please note that this trio is not exactly inexperienced. Between them, they've been in the big leagues for 39 seasons.
Yet when Mitch Moreland lined out to right fielder Adam Eaton - who, by the way, looks like a Gold Glove performer in his new position - Desmond conveniently (for the White Sox) ventured 20 or 30 feet toward second base. Eaton threw behind him to Jose Abreu who joined Desmond in a ballet fit for the Joffrey as Desmond deked, ducked, bobbed and weaved in an attempt to get back to first safely.
What was Fielder doing all this time? Best guess is observing the dance while his pal Beltre made his way toward third base. Fielder is a large human being. Didn't Beltre see him hesitate? Once Abreu applied the tag to Desmond, he threw from his knees to Sox catcher Dioner Navarro.
Let's stop right here. In seasons past, executing an effective rundown was problematic for this team. Often one could confuse them with a Pony League bunch. However, Navarro knew exactly what to do since Fielder, not of fleet foot, was less than a third of the way toward home.
Dioner fired a perfect strike to shortstop Tyler Saladino, who, despite being just a second-year player, proved that he's no dummy. Chasing Beltre a few more steps toward third, Saladino quickly turned his attention to Fielder, who by this time was ready to call it quits. Another accurate toss back to Navarro, and Fielder was a goner as third baseman Todd Frazier wound up tagging him out.
Had the Rangers rehearsed the play prior to the game, they couldn't have accommodated the White Sox any better. They were such willing accomplices.
And they didn't stop there. The very next afternoon in the bottom of the 11th of a 3-3 deadlock, manager Jeff Banister badly manipulated his pitching staff so that recently recalled Nick Martinez opened the frame in his first appearance of the season. His last action came 11 days earlier in a starting role at Round Rock, the Rangers' Triple-A affiliate.
Martinez turned out to be the next White Sox best friend, loading the bases on 12 pitches - just two for strikes - as he hit Austin Jackson in the ribs sandwiched by walks to Navarro and Eaton. Talk about cooperation!
Lest we conclude that the Sox are the smartest guys in the room, Jimmy Rollins followed by taking a ball but then swinging at the next pitch before grounding a 3-2 pitch out of the strike zone as Navarro was forced at home.
However, the slump-plagued Abreu finished things minutes later with a ground ball single through a pulled in five-man infield. Rollins could have been the hero, walking with the bases loaded, but Abreu bailed him out.
The Rangers weren't the only friendly foes at The Cell last week. On Wednesday afternoon, the Sox played one of their typical games, nursing a 2-1 lead over the visiting Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim (that's a mouthful!) in the top of the ninth with closer David Robertson vying for a four-out save. Robertson got the first out before superstar Mike Trout's grounder was deftly fielded by third baseman Todd Frazier going to his left. However, Frazier's throw eluded Jerry Sands, subbing for Abreu at first base.
Trout attempted to change course and head for second, but he lost his footing for a moment, which was enough time for Sands, who is not a good first baseman, to retrieve the ball and throw to Saladino in time to nail Trout.
Apparently Trout, who didn't see the ball bounce off the wall behind first, thought he heard teammates in the dugout shout, "Go." Uhhh. Maybe it was "No."
Despite the audio challenges, once Trout slipped, his chance to wind up at second was lost. Again, a talented, veteran player accommodated our athletes as Robertson then retired Albert Pujols to end the game.
Aside from the strokes of good fortune that the team is experiencing, manager Robin Ventura has been much more of a gambler this season. Because he realizes that his charges continue to struggle offensively, he's made greater use of the sacrifice bunt, hit-and-run, and stolen base. Or possibly his new personnel is far more adept at execution than in the recent past.
In Saturday's extra-inning win, the Sox took a 3-2 lead in the bottom of the eighth on a Frazier home run and an RBI single by Navarro. Jackson tried to pad the lead with a squeeze bunt with Avisail Garcia on third. Maybe the bunt was a bit too hard as first baseman Mitch Moreland threw out Garcia at home, but Avi also got a poor jump.
When Rollins led off the ninth with a hit, he attempted to steal second, which he did safely before taking third as the throw bounced into center field. However, the umpires ruled that Abreu interfered with the catcher, negating Rollins' aggressiveness.
The point is that the Sox do resemble last season's club in one important regard: They don't score any runs. So adopting a running, bunting game can contribute to scratching for a much-needed run here and there. So far the strategy has paid off nicely for the South Siders.
None of this early-season success would be possible without Sox pitching that continues to lead the league with a 2.28 ERA and a 1.02 WHIP. Mat Latos continued his mastery Sunday, limiting the Angels to a solo home run by Nomar Mazara, the game's second batter. That was it for the Rangers as the Sox triumphed 4-1. Latos now is 4-0 with a 0.74 ERA. This is not fantasy, folks. It's actually happening.
A few other observations:
* Watch Frazier play third base. Not only does he cover ground both to his right and left, but he has an amazingly accurate arm. Almost all his throws to first are waist- to letter-high.
* This is the third team that Brett Lawrie has played for in the last three seasons, but it appears that he has found a home on the South Side. The guy plays with an edge. That mouthpiece he wears - I assume it's intended to relax him by minimizing the grinding of his teeth - gives him a pitbull appearance, and he backs it up with energy and enthusiasm too seldom seen with Ventura's teams. His behind-the-back flip to Rollins for a force at second base in Saturday's third inning made all the highlight videos.
He also has delivered some clutch hits.
* Look for the Sox to have a short leash with Avisail Garcia. Pretty much relegated to the DH role, the kid continues to swing at bad pitches, and his slow, sad walk back to the dugout reflects a young player who is struggling. Avi has struck out in about one-third of his at-bats, accounting for a .135 average. J.B. Shuck was sent to Charlotte to make room for pitcher Erik Johnson. Shuck bats left-handed, is a good outfielder, can bunt, makes contact, and he's a .262 hitter playing parts of five big-league seasons. So why not have the two trade places, giving Garcia a chance to play the outfield every day and gain back some confidence?
* While any number of factors have fallen into place so far this season, the team's new, enlarged video boards show that size at The Cell does not matter. The boards are basically a series of modules, about half of which are advertisements. Okay, the Sox need revenue to sign more free agents like Latos and Jackson.
But consider that last Tuesday against the Angels, Melky Cabrera ran along the left-field foul line for a fly ball off the bat of Cliff Pennington. The ball hit Melky's glove and came out, yet Pennington walked back to the dugout. Angels manager Mike Scioscia came out and challenged the play although no replay was shown to the fans at The Cell.
You could excuse the 12,093 in attendance who were freezing their asses off in the 40-degree weather for thinking that the folks at home were watching replay after replay of what turned out to be fan interference. After five minutes, the shivering fans finally got a look at the contested play.
In fact, the boards show very few replays. At the risk of heresy, once the Cubs installed their new video boards, fans at Wrigley were treated to replays of every occurrence on the field, much like the fans viewing at home.
The video boards also inform the folks at the park that a hitter has gone 0-2 or 1-3 in his previous at-bats. No mention whether he grounded out, struck out, or hit a triple. Other parks I've visited do offer these details. And the hitter's season average is hidden on the facades in the corners of the upper deck in left and right field. Previously those stats were on a strip in dead center field.
Maybe the Sox don't want their hitters to confront the fact that they're below the Mendoza line. But hey, Cabrera's hitting .333. Why hide that?
Sox management has all week to find a better formula for its new video offerings while the club travels to Toronto for three games before four more in Baltimore. Chances are these two East Division foes will be far less generous than the team's last two opponents.
However, if the pitchers keep up their current pace and the hitters snap out of their slump, they just might not need the gifts they've enjoyed so far.
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Posted on Jan 12, 2018