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South Side Mystique

It was a short week ago that the White Sox limped home after being swept in Kansas City with the mighty Yankees lying in wait. Even the lousy Mariners who would follow the Yanks in had won eight in a row and 10 of 11. It looked like the collapse everyone seemed to be waiting for was at hand.

Sorry, that's not this team, this season. Pay attention.

This team, this season is Chris Sale striking out 13 to complete the sweep of the Yankees.

This team, this season, is Tyler Flowers (!) leading the Sox to a sweep of the Mariners. (Nate Jones got the vulture win out of the bullpen, running his record to 7-0.)

It's a shame the Cubs are still outdrawing the Sox, 'cause the mystique is all on the South Side this year.

If Kenny Williams announces this week that the Sox are signing Roy Hobbs for the stretch drive, I'd simply nod and proclaim, "Makes sense." After last weekend's heroics with a generous sprinkling of good fortune, the addition of Hobbs merely would add another piece to the puzzle of one of the most fascinating but underobserved seasons in recent baseball memory.

Unfortunately, the crappy attendance seems to be bigger news than the team's weird success. None of the six games last week drew 30,000. Meanwhile, across town in a weekend series against the anemic Rockies, the Cubs drew more than 30,000 all three games.

This is old stuff, and while it affects the bottom line for management, fans care a lot more about wins and losses than gate receipts. Let's face it: ticket prices were jacked up for the Yankee series thanks to the joy of dynamic pricing and it backfired. We wound up sitting behind home plate in the upper deck on Tuesday night for $42, which was about half of what we would have paid to sit downstairs. For about the same tab, we moved to the lower level on Saturday night for the Mariner game.

Assuming that few Sox enthusiasts lose sleep over the team's attendance, there is one aspect that is worth our attention. According to Tobias Moskowitz and L. Jon Wertheim in their entertaining and interesting book Scorecasting - Freakonomics for sports - home teams in baseball win 54 percent of the games.

Before returning home from a road trip earlier this season, Gordon Beckham remarked how nice it would be to sleep in his own bed and not have to travel for the next 10 days. However, this is not where the advantage lies, say Moskowitz and Wertheim. That's because the 54-46 advantage holds true for Cubs vs. Sox, Yankees vs. Mets, Angels vs. Dodgers, and A's vs. Giants when all the athletes are able to enjoy the comforts of home.

"It turns out that the most significant difference between home and away teams is that home teams strike out less and walk more - a lot more - per plate appearance than do away teams," write Moskowitz and Wertheim.

Hmmm. So far this season, the Sox have been issued 150 bases-on-balls on the road but a whopping 192 at home. In the strikeout department, they have whiffed 472 times away from the Cell and a slightly lower 454 at home. Maybe the guys are on to something.

To arrive at these conclusions, the authors studied about 5.5 million pitches between 2002 and 2008. I'm not sure what else they did during those six years, but let's be grateful for their commitment and devotion to the game.

What they were investigating were called pitches, those which were determined solely by the umpire. What they found is that the umpires "call strikes and balls correctly 85.6 percent of the time. But the errors they do make don't seem to be random. They favor the home team."

Furthermore, Mssrs. Moskowitz and Wertheim continue, the umpires are more prone to err in favor of the home team in the late innings of a close game when the place is packed with rowdy fans.

In Wednesday's nail-biting 2-1 victory over the Yankees, Addison Reed was trying to close out the game with one out and a man on first in the top of the ninth. The dangerous Mark Teixeira came to the plate, and Reed immediately threw him two balls. The next two pitches were called strikes, and Teixeira wasn't impressed with either, glaring at the umpire and asking where the pitches were. He flailed at strike three, a pitch up and away. As Teixeira walked back to the dugout, he had some choice words for the umpire. Had Mark been familiar with Scorecasting he might have realized he was in a hole even before he came to the plate.

We were feeling rather euphoric walking out of the Cell on Tuesday along with the announced crowd of 24,247 after Kevin Youkilis's grand slam sunk the Yankees 7-3.

Moments after the final pitch, my son Chet sent this photo from Safeco Field in Seattle where a sea of yellow t-shirts filled Safeco Field.

seattle.jpg

"40,000 here to watch Felix Hernandez pitch vs. Cleveland," Chet texted. "Just think what these guys could draw if they were good."

Back in 2001 when the Mariners were good - they won 116 games - they drew 3.5 million.
Chet texted the next day, "People here are dying for anything positive with this team. They all came out because of King Felix, and then when they got there, they realized how great baseball is."

Obviously the Sox don't have King Felix, but more importantly they didn't have to face him last weekend, which was another stroke of good luck for our guys.

Plus, we have Tyler Flowers.

On Saturday night, when a raucous crowd lit up the Cell, A.J. Pierzynski stirred the pot not by slamming another home run but by getting tossed out for arguing balls and strikes. Manager Robin Ventura quickly followed as the crescendo built. And this was only the third inning.

While this was entertaining theater, it also left our guys without their regular catcher, center fielder - Alejandro De Aza was disabled earlier in the week - and left-fielder Dayan Viciedo, who was scratched right at game time.

Not to worry. Flowers tied the visiting Mariners at 3 in the sixth with a line drive home run, and he chipped in later with a two-strike sacrifice bunt that hugged the third baseline for a single as the Sox won 5-4.

Sunday's game merely added to the aura that something other-worldly is happening here. Again Flowers was right in the middle of it.

In the seventh inning his long boomer to faraway centerfield put the Sox ahead 4-3. Jordan Danks - Viciedo's replacement who had driven in the Sox's first run with a sacrifice fly - preceded Tyler by drawing the only Sox base on balls of the afternoon. After a couple of more hits, the heavens put an exclamation point on the homestand as rain continued to fall far into the night to give the Sox their sixth straight win.

Next up: four games in Baltimore followed by three in Detroit. This appears to be a daunting barrier, but this team seems to create new heroes while finding unique and creative ways to win ball games. Who knows? We may even see 40,000 at the Cell before this all ends.

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

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