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SportsMonday: No Contact Order

The baseball season is upon us. In fact, in honor of first weekend foes Robin Ventura and Texas Rangers president Nolan Ryan, let's say that the baseball season has us in a headlock and is giving us noogies. Shockingly enough, I have some thoughts.

Namely, that Gordon Beckham's inconsistent hitting and inability to make good baseball plays must be infuriating to White Sox fans.

Beckham, who was such a terrible hitter last year and who has managed all of two hits in his first 10 at-bats so far this time around, set the tone for Sunday's game in the top of the fourth inning with as bone-headed a baserunning play as I saw in the majors in the first weekend of games.

Beckham was on third with one out when Paul Konerko sent a ground ball back up the middle. Beckham broke for home on contact - and compounded that error by failing to take one of the two good options available to him.

When third baseman Adrian Beltre ran him far enough down the line, Beckham should have just broke for home and tried to engineer a high-speed collision with the catcher. Barring that, Beckham needed to do a better job of extending the run-down long enough to give hitter Konerko a chance to break for second. True, Konerko is as slow as a turtle, but Beckham needed to at least force a throw and then a chase back out toward third if he wasn't going to make a mad dash toward home.

Instead, he just got himself out.

Joe Mather made the same mistake in the Cubs opener last week. He was excused by game announcers Len & Bob because they assumed Dale Sveum had put on the contact play - once there is contact the baserunner breaks for the plate.

In that instance, the ball was hit to the third basemen, whom Washington Nationals manager Davey Johnson had pulled in. That's not the time to give a rookie the sign to run on contact.

In the White Sox game, ESPN announcers Dan Shulman, Orel Hershiser and Terry Francona likewise assumed Beckham simply ran on a contact play and therefore was just an unfortunate victim of circumstance.

No. First of all, there is never really a contact play. If the batter makes contact and hits a line drive, a baserunner is expected to make sure the line drive gets out of the infield and down to the ground before he ventures so far off the base that he could be doubled off. So why shouldn't a fan have the expectation that the guy on third will be smart enough to make sure a ground ball gets past the pitcher before he ventures too far off the base. The answer, of course, is that a good baserunner doesn't make that mistake.

Plays like this are how teams lose close games, and while the Ranger sluggers eventually stretched the score out to a 5-0 final, the game still felt there for the taking in the fourth, especially if the Sox could have tied it up. And Beckham's baserunning was especially irritating because a few moments before, Adam Dunn had executed one of the delightful little fundamental plays that gives baseball its juice: He had managed to ground out to the right side, moving Beckham to third with less than two outs. If Dunn managed to do that sort of job, the Sox desperately need Beckham to consistently follow suit.

Despite Alex Rios then drawing a walk to move Konerko out to second anyway, the Sox failed to score in the inning. And then in the bottom half, Beltre deposited a two-run homer over the wall in right-center and the Rangers were on their way.

That said, it wasn't a terrible weekend for the Sox considering they escaped Texas with one win. And if they can win two of three in Cleveland starting tonight, they'll be break-even when they return to Chicago for their home opener Friday afternoon against the Tigers.

Going back to the Cubs home opener I would just like to say: People, when a baseball team loses 2-1, it is not the pitchers' fault. Surely that much is clear. If the hitters only manage to push one run across in a given nine-inning stretch, they take the loss. Could Kerry Wood and Carlos Marmol have pitched better in relief against the Nats? Of course, and they were flat-out terrible on Saturday, blowing the 4-2 lead Matt Garza had built during the first six innings.

But on Thursday, Wood had the third out struck until the ump called a pitch down the middle a ball. And the game-winning hit off Marmol was the bloopiest bloop imaginable. If the pitchers hold the opposing team to two runs over nine innings, the hitters need to make a win happen.

The best news as the season starts? None of the pitchers who started for the Cubs or White Sox over the weekend were terrible. The Cubs' lineup is so weak that they will lose plenty of well-pitched games this season, but if the White Sox keep pitching like that (granted, Gavin Floyd will have to do better but there is plenty of reason to believe), they won't be as bad as prognosticators have said they will be.


Jim "Coach" Coffman welcomes your comments.

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