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Not To Worry, White Sox Fans

Had we been told before the White Sox season began that after nine games the starting pitchers would have covered 47-plus innings with a 3.02 ERA, we'd have burst with optimism, assuming that the club had six or seven wins.

We knew that Lucas Giolito, Dallas Keuchel and Lance Lynn were solid, whereas Dylan Cease and Carlos Rodon needed to prove that they could fortify the end of the rotation. So the good news 12 days into the season is that those five hurlers, who have fanned 60 batters while walking just 19, compose one of the better starting staffs in either league.

Included in those numbers, of course, was the complete game masterpiece spun by Lynn last Thursday, blanking the Kansas City Royals 6-0 in the home opener at The Grate. Lynn walked no one while striking out 10 - only the ninth time in team history that a pitcher has recorded double digits in strikeouts without walking anyone in pitching a shutout. Hall of Famer Ed Walsh was the first to do it in 1910, and Giolito accomplished the feat in 2019 against the Twins.

This is all fine and dandy news. So what is the explanation that instead of racking up lots of wins in this young season, the ballclub has struggled to post a disappointing 4-5 record? The answers are not at all complicated.

For instance, left-handed reliever Aaron Bummer, the bullpen's setup man, declared during spring training that anytime the Sox had a lead after five innings, chalk one up for the good guys. It took just one game in the opening series against the Angels to ravage Bummer's declaration, when the Sox led 3-2 after five frames only to lose 4-3. It happened again in Seattle last Wednesday, when the fellas held a 4-1 lead in the top of the sixth only to see the Mariners score seven times in the bottom of the frame en route to an 8-4 victory.

Tragedy struck again on Sunday against the Royals following Adam Eaton's pinch hit two-run homer in the bottom of the eighth, giving Tony La Russa's crew a 3-2 edge with $54 million closer Liam Hendricks entering the fray. Only problem was that Carlos Santana, who had been hitless in his previous 15 at-bats, deposited Hendricks' third pitch into the left centerfield seats to tie the game. The Royals won 4-3 in 10 innings, thanks to Garrett Crochet's throwing error, allowing the lead run to score.

Perhaps the White Sox had a closer all along in hard-throwing Michael Kopech, who's been no less than sensational so far in three appearances. Kopech relieved Cease in the fifth inning Sunday and covered 2⅓ innings on just 26 pitches, retiring all seven batters he faced. His repertoire includes far more than his 98-mph heater, making him just about unhittable. In 6⅓ innings, Kopech has allowed only one hit while walking two and fanning 11.

As outstanding as Kopech has been, patience is required for Hendricks and other relievers such as Matt Foster, the victim of Seattle's sixth-inning outburst on Wednesday. Foster relieved Keuchel with runners on first and second and no one out. Foster pitched to eight hitters, finally leaving after seven runners crossed the plate. La Russa accepted responsibility later for leaving Foster in the game long after he faced the required three hitters

This was so out of character for the White Sox skipper who, if he errs, usually miscalculates by lifting a pitcher too early rather than too late. Also, what were bench coach Miguel Cairo and pitching boss Ethan Katz thinking? One of them might have whispered in La Russa's ear, "Hey, Tony, this guy doesn't have it today. Better get him out of there." Of course, that never happened, or if it did, the skipper ignored the advice.

If we're seeking to soften the tribulations of the Sox bullpen a wee bit, take solace from the fact that the man Hendricks replaced, Alex Colomé, now toiling for the Twins, yielded a three-run ninth inning homer Sunday to Seattle's Kyle Seager, turning a Minnesota 6-5 lead into an 8-6 loss. The Twins led 6-0 in that game and now stand at just 5-4. So the Sox are not alone as far as punctured expectations are concerned.

And the South Siders still possess baseball's leading hitter in DH Yermin Mercedes, he of the .536 batting average to go along with an on-base mark of .594 after walking three times on Sunday.

Other positive developments include Eaton's almost-heroics on Sunday. The Sox right-fielder, the brunt of much consternation when the Sox signed him as a free agent last December, seems to have settled down in the field while clubbing a couple of homers and slashing .258/.361/.813. Some fans had a "been there-done that" attitude about Eaton, but the guy makes contact and can run the bases. Besides, he's already hit one more homer than Nomar Mazara, last season's right-field experiment, did in 2020.

The absence of Eloy Jiménez and Tim Anderson, who may return from the IL this week, has compromised the Sox attack, and with the exception of the Yerminator, no one has truly taken up the slack.

Yoan Moncada is receiving scrutiny after his weak season in 2020, when he suffered the effects of COVID-19. His lone hit of the shortened two-game series with Kansas City was a first inning two-run homer on Thursday, a stirring development to kick off the home season. The guy's hitting a paltry .161. However, after striking out in 11 of his first 23 plate appearances, Moncada has fanned just once since then in his last 14 trips to the plate. That's a sign that he's coming out of his doldrums.

Centerfielder Luis Robert also is making better contact this season after striking out last year in about a third of his plate appearances. Now it's about one-in-four. In addition, when he does make contact, Robert's average exit velocity is 92.6, tops on the team. Some of those missiles that have been hit right at defenders are going to start going into the gaps as things even out, and Robert will be hitting above his present mark of .250.

Four games at The Grate against Cleveland are on tap beginning Monday evening. Cleveland has won five of their first eight games, thanks primarily to a pitching staff that has an ERA of 2.83, third best in MLB. Opponents are hitting just .169 against Cleveland moundsmen. Currently, Cleveland occupies the top spot in the American League Central.

One category in which the Sox likely lead the league is the 90 percent of their traveling entourage - players and staff - who have been vaccinated (with the one-shot Johnson & Johnson). According to the team's website, vaccinations were delivered right to the team's clubhouse. My question is, what happened to the 10 percent who either were absent or rejected the vaccine?

That seems more puzzling than Yoan Moncada's slump or La Russa failing to rescue Matt Foster in Seattle.

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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