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What seemed improbable at best just three months ago appears at the very least doable today. As Jake Peavy said after beating Toronto on Friday night, "This thing is just getting going. We got a big two-and-a-half months left and I think we are all in this clubhouse looking forward to that."
If history is a guide, there is good reason to look ahead with optimism.
Consider the last five times - 1983, 1993, 2000, 2005, and 2008 - that the White Sox won the Central Division to reach the playoffs; all those teams proved that their success prior to the All-Star game was no fluke.
Let's begin with 1983, a team mired in sixth place on May 26 with a 16-24 record. With Tony LaRussa calling the shots, the team surged to 40-37 by the break and then blew away the competition by winning 59 of their remaining 85 games en route to a 99-63 record.
It is interesting to note that the '83 bunch made a mid-June addition when general manager Roland Hemond traded second baseman Tony Bernazard to Seattle for Julio (Juice) Cruz. The new second baseman hit just .251 but added speed, defense and positive karma to a talented group that already included Harold Baines, Carlton Fisk, Ron Kittle, Greg Luzinski and a solid pitching staff.
I thought about that trade after Kenny Williams grabbed Kevin Youkilis from the Red Sox. Talk about good karma. Youk already has become a South Side favorite, leading the team to a 9-4 mark since he arrived. If Juice Cruz injected a spark for the '83 team, Youkilis is capable of doing even more for this season's ballclub.
Then there were the 1993 Sox, who led the division at the All-Star break at 45-41 before adding a 49-27 ledger in the second half to go 94-68. Frank Thomas was MVP that season (41 HR, 128 RBI, .317 BA), and current manager Robin Ventura played a huge part with 22 homers and 94 RBI.
Move ahead to 2000 when soft-spoken Jerry Manuel guided the team to a stunning 55-32 record at the break. The team wasn't as hot after the All-Star game, going 40-35, but that was good enough to hold off second-place Cleveland by five games. Twenty-four-year-old Paul Konerko was just coming of age back then as his numbers were 21, 97, and .298. Paulie is one of four players from that team still active today, the others being Mark Buehrle, Carlos Lee, and Kip Wells.
The 2005 World Series champions were unheralded prior to that season, although unlike this year, Sports Illustrated didn't predict 95 losses. The team got out of the gate quickly, posting a 57-29 mark by the break. They cooled a bit in the second half, leading Cleveland by just 2 1/2 games on September 20, the night of the epic game at the Cell when Joe Crede hit two home runs - including a walk-off in the tenth - to virtually put the Sox over the hump. They wound up at 99-63 and went 11-1 in the postseason.
Finally, the 2008 team was just 35-33 following the All-Star break, but a solid start of 54-41 was good enough to earn the Sox a one-game face-off against the Twins to see who would advance. Thanks to John Danks' greatest performance, a Jim Thome home run, and Junior Griffey's perfect throw to the plate to stifle Minnesota's only threat, our guys prevailed 1-0. I dare you to recall a more exciting game when it counted ever played at the Cell.
Lest you are contemplating where you'd like to sit for the playoffs, I must point out that the antithesis to the above-mentioned campaigns was 1977, when the South Side Hitmen led the division at the break with a 54-36 record. In the last game prior to the All-Star game, Steve Stone ran his record to 10-7 by beating the Red Sox 3-2. That win kept the Sox 2 1/2 games in front of defending Central champs Kansas City.
The Sox were only 36-36 the rest of the way, while the Royals, who truly did have a splendid ballclub, surged to 51-22 after the break, 12 games better than Stoney, Richie Zisk, Oscar Gamble, and the rest of the Hitmen.
So what can we expect from here until the Sox close out the season with three games at Cleveland the first week of October?
Most observers are convinced that the challenge will not come from the Indians but from the Tigers, who now trail the Sox by 3 1/2 games. If you want to play the game I just related, simply go back to last season when the Tigers were 49-43 at All-Star time. They went 46-24 the rest of the way, and that was minus Prince Fielder, who is having a lovely time in the Motor City.
So far the Sox and Detroit have split eight games, meaning that they have ten more confrontations - six at Comerica. And, as yet, the Sox haven't faced Justin Verlander, last season's Cy Young recipient. Mark your calendar for September 10-13 when Detroit visits the Cell for four mid-week games. Those very well could be the deciding contests, and you can bet that Jim Leyland will have Verlander starting one of those games.
Leading up to that time, the Sox need to put a few more pieces into place. Most pressing is starting pitching. Danks and Philip Humber both have been shelved by a sore shoulder and arm, respectively, but that has given Jose Quintana a chance to emerge as a future star. Fate gave Quintana an opportunity, and he's shown the ability to spot the ball with pinpoint control while exhibiting a calm, professional presence.
Let assume that Quintana, Chris Sale, and Jake Peavy remain strong for the next three months. If they do, the success of this team could be placed squarely on the shoulders of Gavin Floyd. He showed Saturday in his mastery of the Blue Jays in the Sox's 2-0 win that he might be up to the challenge. Since Gavin went 17-8 in 2008, he has a mediocre 40-45 record. However, in his last four outings, he has a 1.37 ERA and has given up just 21 hits in 26-plus innings. Think where Floyd could take this team if he continues to pitch effectively.
Fifth starter Dylan Axelrod, who was shelled Sunday by the Blue Jays, is not the long-term answer, but Humber appears almost ready to return. Like Floyd, his effectiveness would work wonders for this ballclub. Imagine if Danks is able to come back to solidify the rotation.
Meanwhile, the bullpen is filled with guys you never heard of, but they have live arms, tend to throw strikes - at least until yesterday - and getting beat up a game or two doesn't seem to have long-lasting effects. Addison Reed may blow a few saves from here on out, but he represents youth, desire, talent, and confidence. Ventura's gamble was and will continue to be one worth taking.
Talking about Ventura, he makes a few moves that are puzzling, such as staying with some pitchers (namely Peavy) seemingly far too long while giving others (notably Quintana) a quick hook. Sometimes he asks relievers to pitch more than one inning - it worked successfully with Matt Thornton on Saturday - while other times a guy is gone after a few pitches. He's run into some outs with failed steals while neglecting the bunt when it seems in order.
His predecessor would have ranted about the wisdom of his strategy. When the team was winning, it was great theater. Ventura's post-game comments are about as cliche-laden and scintillating as Lovie Smith's. But that's just fine. The guy clearly has the respect of his players, he has surrounded himself with a good coaching staff, and he is even-keeled.
Outside of the Pittsburgh Pirates, the Sox are the season's biggest surprise thus far. There are so many bright spots - Alex Rios, team defense, timely hitting, A.J. Pierzynski, Alejandro De Aza, and much more - that it's tough to picture the White Sox not remaining a contender in the second half. If history repeats itself, the first half was simply a preview of what's to come.
Roger Wallenstein is our man on the White Sox beat. He welcomes your comments.
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