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You can point to any number of factors leading to the early season success of the new, improved Chicago White Sox.
Robin Ventura's club, as yet, hasn't shown noticeably more punch than a year ago, scoring three or fewer runs in seven of the team's first 12 games. What is different is that the Sox have won three of those games because Sox pitchers have a 2.49 ERA, tops in the American League and third in all of baseball.
In his season preview, Tyler Kepner of the New York Times tabbed Chris Sale as most likely to win the American League's Cy Young Award.
So far Sale has been as good as any starter, posting wins in his first three outings, the latest a sterling complete-game 1-0 shutout of the Tampa Bay Rays last Friday.
Sale was masterful in dispatching the Rays on 106 pitches. He walked no one - in 23 innings this April, Sale was issued just three free passes while striking out 23. The Sox's 27-year-old feisty lefthander, who already is among baseball's elite pitchers, appears to be on the threshold of even greater feats.
And Sale is not alone. Jose Quintana (who got beat 3-2 on Sunday when he missed the bag after taking a toss from Jose Abreu) and Carlos Rodon are a combined 2-2 with a 2.05 ERA.
The biggest surprise, however, is Mat Latos. After a worrisome spring training in Arizona, Latos has won his first two outings, giving up a lone run in 12 innings.
Latos beat the Twins 3-1 last Thursday to complete an unlikely sweep of the three-game series as Minnesota's losing streak reached nine to start the season. (The Twins awakened over the weekend, sweeping the Angels, who will open a four-game set beginning tonight at The Cell.)
No one, including Latos himself, could have foreseen his early supremacy. Latos's final spring appearance against the Padres in San Diego possibly provided a dose of needed confidence going into the season. He pitched four scoreless innings before giving up three runs in the fifth, ending the spring with that horrendous 10.38 ERA.
But all along Latos has insisted that past injuries have healed, and a consistent rhythm and spotting his pitches were all he required to rebound to his former effectiveness.
After all, Latos reminded anyone listening, spring training is merely an exercise to prepare for the occasions when the games mean something.
The fact that Latos was assured of a spot in the rotation - the Sox demoted potential starter Erik Johnson to Triple A on March 21 - possibly has something to do with his resurgence. Signed on February 9 just days before the beginning of spring training, Latos might have been unsure of his status when he reported. However, with Johnson struggling - his two starts at Charlotte have also been lackluster - Latos may have experienced the elixir of job security.
At age 28 with 66 major league wins behind him, we can be excused for thinking that Latos may represent a legitimate right-handed starting pitcher on the South Side.
Latos got a huge boost last Thursday from third baseman Todd Frazier, another example that the Sox are doing the little things needed to be successful. With the Sox leading 2-1 in the bottom of the sixth, Eddie Rosario led off with a base hit, one of the three Latos gave up. Rosario promptly stole second.
Joe Mauer followed with a grounder down the third base line that Frazier backhanded with little chance of nailing Mauer at first. Figuring incorrectly that he could race to third as Frazier threw to first, Rosario strayed off second. To his dismay, Frazier only pumped his arm for the throw, hanging Rosario out to dry as Frazier's perfect throw to second baseman Brett Lawrie caught Rosario in a rundown that the Sox actually executed with distinction, yet another improvement we've seen in the first two weeks. A popup and a flyout later, and Latos jogged to the dugout.
Rosario's foolish baserunning was a common occurrence for recent White Sox teams. (See Alejandro De Aza.) But Friday night, Jimmy Rollins' heady play resulted in Sale's third win. The Sox had battled the Rays for eight innings to a scoreless tie before Rollins opened the ninth with a single. After one out, Frazier lifted a flyball to medium center. The Rays' Gold Glove center fielder Kevin Kiermaier had left the game earlier after a collision with second baseman Logan Forsythe, forcing the Rays to move Brandon Guyer from right to center field.
Assuming that Rollins realized that Guyer is more comfortable playing a side outfield position, Jimmy tagged up and easily slid safely into second from where he scored the game's only run on a base hit by Melky Cabrera.
Have the tables turned? Whereas the Sox have been the victims of amateurish baserunning and a lack of clutch hitting, do we now have a club which actually knows how to play the game? Is this edition of the White Sox capable of taking advantage of their opponents' mistakes? So far the answer is affirmative.
In addition, the White Sox bullpen, with the exception of Saturday's failures in the 7-2 loss to the Rays, has been exceptional.
David Robertson is a perfect five-for-five in save situations. Matt Albers, like Latos a pitcher nabbed off the junk pile by general manager Rick Hahn almost exactly a year before Hahn signed Latos, hasn't allowed a run is his last 25 appearances covering 29.1 innings dating back to last season. The Sox bullpen's ERA is 1.50. No bullpen has been better in the season's first two weeks.
Lest we gush about the domination of Sox pitching, the performance so far of John Danks shocks us back to reality. Over two starts he has performed, well, like John Danks. In the final year of a huge four-year contract - Danks is making $15,750,000 this season - the lefty was beaten in the home opener by Cleveland, and he didn't have much better luck last Saturday in the loss at Tampa Bay.
Danks, who turned 31 last week, was an impressive 15-11 in 2010. Since then he's won 33 and lost 58 with an ERA of 4.76. Of course, he battled injuries for some of that time and doesn't throw as hard as he used to. Nevertheless, we're going on six seasons with a pitcher who needs to be almost perfect to be effective. Danks has a WHIP of 1.39 since 2010, meaning that he usually pitches with runners on base. When his changeup floats to the plate waist high, he gets shelled. Danks gives up more than a hit an inning, so limiting walks is crucial, yet he averages about three per nine innings over his career.
Assuming Danks is healthy, he'll start about 30 games this season. It doesn't take a Rick Hahn or Robin Ventura to understand that the Sox can't play from behind each time Danks's turn comes up. How long they'll stick with him clearly depends if he can put together some quality starts (I can't stand that term) to keep his mates competitive. If not, the club needs to look elsewhere.
Meanwhile, Sox hitters continue to slump. They're hitting just .228, scoring a bit more than three runs a game. In the three-game series in Tampa Bay, the Sox collected just 18 hits in 97 at-bats for a .186 mark. Brett Lawrie hit the team's lone home run.
That kind of impotence tends to put undue pressure on a club's pitching staff. For the most part, the Sox pitchers have responded splendidly. Playing at home this week in the friendly Cell might wake up the Sox offense. Now is the time.
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