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Robin's Way

Maybe this game is less complicated than we thought.

Case in point: The Sox were one of the most inept teams in 2011 when it came to throwing out would-be base stealers. In fact, 135 would-bes morphed into real-bes. Only San Diego (141) and the Red Sox (156) allowed more stolen bases than the White Sox.
The Major League average for cutting down theft last season was 29 percent. The Sox's 22 percent was 25th out of 30 teams.

But after 22 games this April a mere three of 11 runners have managed to steal a base against the Sox. While the team is .500, none of the other 29 teams comes close to cutting down base stealers with greater precision than our White Sox.

And all of this has happened without Mark Buehrle, by far the most effective Sox pitcher in the past at holding guys on base. While Buehrle was on the bump for the Sox last season, 10 runners tried to steal. Seven were tossed out.

So what's different? Gavin (Slow Delivery) Floyd, John Danks, Philip Humber and Jake Peavy remain the nucleus of the starting staff. Returnees Matt Thornton, Chris Sale and Will Ohman all saw extensive duty last season while pitching coach Don Cooper continues in his 10th year with the team.

Think maybe Robin Ventura might be responsible for the turnaround? I can't say for sure, but I do know that his predecessor, Ozzie Guillen, now manages the Miami Marlins, and they aren't doing too well in this department. The Marlins have gunned down just four runners so far this year, while giving up 17 steals. And they do have Buehrle, who's pitched 27 innings without allowing a stolen base.

Having played and coached high school baseball, I know that a ballclub that allows a bunch of stolen bases more often than not is a losing ballclub. Walks and singles which turn into doubles and triples are not healthy.

I exchanged e-mails last week with Josh Locks, the assistant varsity coach at Whitney Young High School, a program that won three city championships between 2007 and 2010.

"We work on [holding runners on] probably once a week for 15 to 20 minutes," Josh wrote. "We like our moves and what we do, but it can be a four-year process. To me the best way to stop runners is with a great catcher."

The Sox have a good - but not great - catcher in A.J. Pierzynski, who has thrown out half of the six attempted base-stealers he has faced so far this year after nailing just 20 percent last season. Obviously A.J. and his backup Tyler Flowers are getting some help. Locks' explanation of what happens with his high school team may have relevance on the South Side.

"We try a few things with our pitchers," Locks says. "First, they have to be willing to throw over to first base. We teach three moves. The bad one just to tell the runner you're aware, the middle one which you do a little faster just to offset the timing, and then the best move where you actually are attempting to get an out. Pitchers need to vary their set time and use a slide step. Sometimes be set for three-four seconds, sometimes barely one. That way runners can't time you."

Apparently this aspect of the game was addressed during Sox spring training if results are any indication.

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Something else new and different occurred during Friday night's game against the Red Sox in the bottom of the fifth inning with the score tied 2-2. With two outs and no one on base, Paul Konerko ran the count to 3-and-0 against Daniel Bard. Hawk Harrelson intoned, "Turn him loose." Was he talking to Ventura? Steve Stone? Himself?

Then, " . . . high, deep, stretch, he looks up. You can put it on the board, yes! We got ourselves a three-oh offense at last!"

If there was any confusion about Hawk's meaning, the following exchange between him and Stone made it clear:

Stone: "Well, it's a fastball down the middle, it's 92. The only thing you can think about is the fact that this ballclub has never had the three-oh offense before, almost exclusively taking three-and-oh pitches. So perhaps it was not in the scouting report, and [the Red Sox] took for granted that Paulie was taking it. Because you have a three-and-oh green light doesn't mean you're going to swing. It means if you like the pitch in the zone you like, then you're going to swing."

Hawk: "Unfortunately you and I have not - and I have not - in Paulie's career seen him hit three-and oh often, and I would bet you that he could be one of the best three-and-oh hitters we've ever seen."

Ahem. And just who had been managing the ballclub for the previous eight seasons? When Ozzie was at the helm, Hawk frequently claimed that he was one of Guillen's biggest boosters. But now that Ozzie has taken his Tweeter to South Beach, maybe we're hearing what Hawk really thinks. At least regarding some aspects of the game.

Of course, the Sox didn't come close to holding that lead on Friday, but Saturday's 1-0 loss, spoiling another masterful performance by Peavy, was even more frustrating.

The tone was set in the first inning when Adam Dunn, who had walked, didn't appear to run hard on Paulie's two-out double into the left field corner. No one will accuse Dunn of being a speedster, but he did play quarterback for a season at Texas, and he lumbered around second on his way to third.

However, Cody Ross had problems fielding the carom off the wall. Only Dunn knows whether he was moving at full throttle, but the bottom line is that he blew a chance to score despite Ross's shenanigans. It matters not whether an athlete has a huge contract like Dunn or is making the minimum - as a fan I expect big leaguers to run hard! Always! And it's Ventura's duty to call out any player who doesn't.

We also learned a bit more about Ventura in the bottom of the seventh on Saturday when the Sox had runners on second and third with two outs and the struggling Gordon Beckham coming to the plate. Sure, Jon Lester, a left-hander was still in the game, but pinch-hitting Pierzynski or Brent Lillibridge - if Ventura was intent on the lefty-righty match-up - occurred to second-guessers like myself. Gordon grounded out, and our athletes couldn't break through in the eighth or ninth.

Nevertheless, if any fan were asked prior to the season whether an 11-11 beginning would be promising, the answer would be a resounding, "Absolutely!" Now let's see what we'll be saying at the end of May.

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Roger Wallenstein is our man on the White Sox beat. He welcomes your comments.

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1. From Lloyd Rutzky:

Very good point about the caught stealing reversals by our catchers this year so far. It could bring huge dividends this season. Also the 3 & 0 swinging.


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