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If winning the close ones and having a great bullpen are required for a ballclub with post-season aspirations, then should we be concerned about the White Sox' prospects?
Four losses last week - two against the Rangers and a pair at Yankee Stadium - were decided by a total of six runs.
An 11-6 lead in the bottom of the eighth last Tuesday against the Rangers seemed safe enough until Scott Carroll, Zach Duke and Matt Albers surrendered seven runs, resulting in a 13-11 loss.
Duke failed again Sunday, giving up a two-run sixth inning homer to Carlos Beltran as the Yankees took a 5-4 lead. But the Sox were resilient, fighting back to tie the game against monster reliever Dellin Betances only to have Albers and Nate Jones give up single tallies in the seventh and eighth innings as the Sox bowed 7-5.
This is not the formula that propelled the Sox to a five-game lead in the American League Central as the week began.
But hold on. As the fellows flew back to Chicago to open a 10-game homestand beginning Tuesday against the Astros, they still held that same five-game advantage in the division. As much trouble as the Sox had last week, Cleveland dropped two of three to both the Twins and Astros, while Detroit lost five times and won only twice and Kansas City went a pedestrian 3-4.
That's not the only good news. Chris Sale improved to 8-0 with a masterful 7-1 win Friday night against the Yanks. He had no intention of turning the game over to the bullpen as he needed just 99 pitches to dispatch the Yankees, a hot team that's now won seven of their last 10 contests.
In facing Rangers' ace Cole Hamels Wednesday afternoon, the Sox chased the veteran left-hander in the sixth inning, banging out nine hits including home runs by Todd Frazier and Brett Lawrie as the South Siders took a 5-4 lead. Only problem was that Dan Jennings relieved Mat Latos in the bottom of the frame and gave up three two-out singles as the Rangers scored twice for the final 6-5 verdict. (See first paragraph about bullpens.)
Frazier made a gallant dive into the stands Wednesday and got a mouthful of iron armrest. He hightailed it back to the dugout with his glove covering his face as trainer Herm Schneider moved as quickly as his ample girth permitted to attend to the bleeding Frazier. This easily could have been a broken jaw, but chalk it up as another tidbit of good news from the week. The slugging third baseman's lower lip was patched up with five stitches.
Frazier played in all three games in New York. His 12th homer Saturday was the Sox lone tally in a 2-1 loss. Frazier ranks second to Robinson Cano in home runs in the American League, and his 32 RBI have been eclipsed only by Cano and David Ortiz in this young season. Add in exceptionally solid play at third base, and you have one of the most astute deals in GM Rick Hahn's front office career.
Saturday's loss to the Yankees was absorbed by Jose Quintana, who pitched seven superb innings. Only in the second inning did he give up any runs. Quintana seems to be working a bit quicker this year. Not exactly a Mark Buehrle, but he has stepped it up a notch even with runners on base.
After retiring the first two batters in the second inning on Saturday, Jose had a 1-2 count on Chase Headley when time was called and the umpire went to the mound. Seemed that all the players in the majors had been outfitted with promotional "Play Ball" tags on the left side of their jerseys for the weekend. Apparently Quintana swiped the tag with his glove and the adhesive gave way so that the tag stuck to Quintana's mitt. Quintana was unaware of this, and the ump simply came out to remove the tag.
This may have had nothing to do with the ensuing developments, but did the pause interfere with Quintana's rhythm? Headley wound up walking, and the next three hitters, - Aaron Hicks, Didi Gregorius and Austin Romine - doubled, singled and doubled, respectively. I mean, this wasn't exactly A-Rod, Teixeira and Beltran. In fact, it was the seven-eight-nine hitters who beat Quintana. I just have to wonder about that interruption since he pitched the next five innings retiring 15 of 17 hitters.
Quintana might have had better luck, but Yankee manager Joe Girardi employed his script for the last three innings with Betances, Andrew Miller and Aroldis Chapman, who fanned eight hitters amid the last 10 outs. Look for the Yankees to move up in the AL East before the leaves begin to change.
While pitching has more or less led the White Sox charge in the season's first quarter, it actually has become the mysterious element as we move ahead. Sale and Quintana appear solid. Any time their turn comes around, figure the Sox have a chance.
Carlos Rodon is a potential star, but he requires maturity and experience. He got knocked around last Tuesday before the bullpen was horrendous, all of which led to an ugly loss.
Mat Latos started the season amazingly well, but he's given up 13 runs in his last three outings.
Miguel Gonzalez, who pitched into the fifth inning Sunday, holds down the No. 5 spot in the rotation for now, but just barely. The former Baltimore righty has walked 10 batters in 15-plus innings, a sure recipe for disaster.
Meanwhile, the Sox can score runs far better than last year. Only three teams in the American League have scored more often, a tremendous improvement over 2015.
But that's just it. Last year is irrelevant because the Sox were a sorry bunch. It is useless to make comparisons to the last three years because the goal can't be to improve upon a club that finished 10 games below .500 or worse.
This is a different group, with proven veterans like Frazier, Lawrie, Latos and Jimmy Rollins, who know what it takes to be a winner.
And Robin Ventura is using his personnel in a much more intelligent manner via the hit-and-run, bunt and stolen base.
(Note: Ventura did make a questionable move Saturday in the ninth inning when he inserted Jerry Sands to pinch hit for Melky Cabrera against Chapman, whose fastball was clocked at 102 mph. Sands struck out. Cabrera, who is off to a rousing beginning with a slash line of .305/.380/.791, had faced Chapman once previously and got an RBI single. What was Robin thinking?)
With division rivals coming to The Cell after Houston visits, we should know a great deal more about this crew before it travels again 10 days from now. This isn't complicated. The bullpen needs to regain its former effectiveness while Latos, Rodon and Gonzalez (or whoever) keep the other guys in check long enough for the offense to take over.
Win the close ones while the bullpen closes out the late innings. Very simple.
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