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Good teams win the close ones, and neither team meeting tonight at U.S. Cellular appears to be very good.
Even though the four games this week between the White Sox and Tigers very well could determine the Central Division champion, both clubs enter the series in a fog. At this point, you have to give a tepid nod to our guys simply because Detroit had such a horrid week, going 1-5 including a three-game sweep in Anaheim over the weekend.
But yesterday's 2-1, ten-inning loss to the Royals - a game where the Sox blew a number of chances - left Sox fans muttering, "If only . . . "
More than 50 years ago, another White Sox team, the 1959 pennant winners, showed just how important it was to win the tight games. That ballclub broke a 40-year drought and went to the World Series. It prided itself on winning one-run games. Thirty-five to be exact, while dropping only 15 of those as-close-as-it-gets decisions.
It was at that point that I came to understand that teams which can't shut the door on the close ones usually don't have Champagne on ice in September.
The '59 team played in cavernous Comiskey Park where it was 352 feet to each foul pole, 375 to the alleys, and a hefty 410 to dead center. It had been 440 to center before the team relocated the bullpens in front of the centerfield wall in the early 1950s. Hence the Go-Go Sox were born, teams built on speed, pitching, and defense.
Catcher Sherman Lollar led the '59 Sox in home runs with just 22, but shortstop Luis Aparicio, who led the American League nine consecutive seasons in stolen bases, swiped 56 that season and scored 98 times.
The offense more often than not featured leadoff man Aparicio getting on base, stealing second, and scoring on a base hit by Nellie Fox, who was MVP that year. Then wait two or three innings and do it again.
This worked splendidly as the starting pitchers accounted for 44 complete games while the bullpen had 36 saves led by former National Leaguers Turk Lown - he actually played for the Cubs at one time - and Gerry Staley. (Saves were not an official statistic until 1969, and there were no closers or set-up men.) That pennant-winning team more or less scored a few runs per game, shut down the opposition, and won the close ones 70 percent of the time.
And the fans seemed to enjoy this style, void of power hitters and big innings. Any time Aparicio reached first base, the mantra "go, go, go" echoed from the seats. Little Looey was fooling no one, least of all the opposition, but he still stole second more often than not, and the Sox were on their way.
I figured that was unique, but it wasn't.
Take our 2005 heroes. They also won 35 games by the slimmest of margins, while losing 19. The offense was far more robust than the team of 46 years earlier, but the bullpen - a patchwork combination including Dustin Hermanson and Bobby Jenks who followed Opening Day closer Shingo Takatsu - accounted for 54 saves, recording a 74 percent success rate.
The '05 team broke quickly from the gate, winning 27 of its first 37 games. In each of those 37, the Sox had the lead at some point during the nine innings. They obviously were adept at holding onto 27 of those leads while taking a commanding grip on the division.
Looking at this season's records for one-run games, it isn't surprising that Baltimore, with a dazzling 25-7 record, leads the majors. Eureka! No one expected Baltimore to challenge the mighty Yankees. But winning the close ones has been a key as the Birds trail the Yankees by a mere game in the AL East.
The Nationals are 27-18; the Giants 26-18; and Cincinnati has won 24 of 43 one-run games. These three division-leading clubs are among the leaders in one-run decisions.
And the Sox? Well, they're No. 6 with a 23-17 record after yesterday's depressing loss. That's not too shabby, and it has improved since Addison Reed was installed as the team's closer.
Even though the 23-year-old rookie took a tough loss Friday night when he gave up a two-run homer to Lorenzo Cain - not a blown save since the score was tied at the time - he's accounted for 26 saves in 30 opportunities. Compare that to Matt Thornton who was two-for-six earlier in the season, and you can understand how the Sox have improved in terms of winning the close ones.
Meanwhile, the Tigers rank a lowly 25th in one-run decisions with a 17-24 mark. They have lost their last seven one-run games. This makes me happy, and I hope it continues for another three weeks.
Detroit's closer, the water-spitting, crow-hopping, attention-grabbing Jose Valverde, is 28 for 32 in saves, about the same as Reed. So you really can't blame him for the Tigers' inability to win the close ones. However, Papa Grande cashed in on all 49 save opportunities in 2011, and he hasn't been as effective - nor has he had the opportunities - this season.
In addition to stumbling in the tight contests, the Tigers are a miserable 30-38 when playing on the road. Our guys are 41-29 at the Cell. This bodes well for the White Sox this week.
But the White Sox will have to execute much better than they have been. They're basically a .500 team over the past two months, and only the Tigers' puzzling ineptitude has kept the Sox in first place.
So the cards are stacked slightly in the Sox's favor beginning tonight. The team is a sparkling 66-44 in games not involving Detroit and Kansas City. Now it's time to see whether our athletes can reverse the tables and win the most meaningful games of the season.
Roger Wallenstein is our man on the White Sox beat. He welcomes your comments.
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