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Stirring The Drink

Two rousing endings to Chicago sports occurred on Mother's Day about six miles and 40 minutes apart. One was heartbreaking although not so difficult to believe, while the other was totally unexpected and out-of-character.

Of course, the former - the one witnessed by a full house at the United Center and millions watching on TV - featured the finest, strongest, nastiest basketball player alive dashing the hopes of Bulls fans everywhere. The other - pretty much operating under the radar aside from the announced 20,123 at The Cell and the few of us flipping back and forth between the Sox and Bulls - still has us shaking our heads in disbelief.

Closer David Robertson had his first hiccup of his White Sox career in the top of the ninth inning against the visiting Cincinnati Reds, enabling the visitors to score twice to tie the game at 3-3. Then the most intimidating pitcher in baseball loped to the mound for the bottom of the inning.

Lefthander Aroldis Chapman, in his seven years since defecting from Cuba, has struck out an average of 15.3 batters per nine innings. That's what a fastball clocking anywhere from 99-103 mph will do for ya. Even after having his face shattered by a line drive during spring training a little more than a year ago, the confident, imposing Chapman had 36 saves in 2014 and has six already this season.

Although this was not a save situation, Reds manager Bryan Price no doubt figured that Chapman would record a scoreless ninth, while the White Sox already had used their closer along with set-up man Zach Duke. He was confident his club could win in extra innings.

And after Chapman fanned Jose Abreu and got Adam LaRoche to ground out, Price's strategy appeared to be a sure bet, especially with Avisail Garcia at the plate with a 2-2 count.

But Avi, who now is hitting .327, caught up to the next fastball, lining it to center for a base hit. Fellow Cuban Alexei Ramirez - did he ever face Chapman back in their native country? - didn't wait. The first pitch was up in the zone, seemingly unhittable, but Alexei lined that one into center field, too. A wild pitch followed with Gordon Beckham at the plate, and then - again with a 2-2 count - Beckham managed to get the meat of the bat on another fastball and lift it over the second baseman's head into right centerfield for the game-winner.

The unlikely ending gave the Sox two series' victories last week at The Cell, having bumped off Detroit 5-2 and 7-6 before bowing 4-1 on Thursday.

The second win against the Tigers also came on the Sox' final at-bat. Trailing 6-3 going into the bottom of the eighth and facing Joba Chamberlain - not exactly Chapman but still the Tigers' set-up man - Melky Cabrera hit his first home run of the season, a three-run shot to tie the game. Three singles later, the last off the bat of Garcia, produced the game-winner as Robertson came on for the save. Robertson was far from perfect, but a heady defensive play - no, really - bailed him out.

After getting the first hitter, Nick Castellanos singled, as did James McCann. However, McCann took too wide a turn at first as Garcia hit cutoff man Ramirez right in the chest, and Alexei threw a perfect strike to Abreu at first to nail the runner. Robertson retired the next batter, and the Sox had a gutsy comeback victory.

A week ago we were wondering whether Robin Ventura was the right man for the job - that issue remains unsettled since the club still is four games below .500 - but now Sox fans can point to some instances where the team is playing the game as it was meant to be played.

Not to be overlooked was the first career win for prized No. 1 draft choice Carlos Rodon, who pitched six strong innings - two earned runs, four hits, eight strikeouts - Saturday night to beat the Reds 8-2 in the second game of a doubleheader since Friday's game was rained out. Cincinnati took the opener 10-4 behind Johnny Cueto, who doesn't throw as hard as Chapman but is crafty, talented and a lot of fun to watch.

Rodon, despite walking four, looks ready to assume a spot in the rotation. His breaking ball really moves, and his fastball was clocked as high as 98 on Saturday. His mound presence is far more mature than most 22-year-olds with just 34 innings of minor league experience. Hector Noesi, who was forced out of Saturday's first game after a second inning line drive caught him right in the kidney, has reason to question his job security.

However, in this day of pitch counts and surgeries, you can assume that the White Sox will limit Rodon's workload this season. Stay tuned, but Rodon's next start could be a few weeks away as he goes back to the bullpen.

The other development is that the Sox now have a theme for the season. Did you notice Cabrera on Saturday night standing at first base after driving in a run? He put his fists together, looked at his teammates in the dugout, and emulated a stirring motion. In the wild Mother's Day celebration, Beckham ran around the infield and then made the same gesture with gusto.

Seems that the boys have picked up on Adam Eaton's comments that he's the straw that stirs the drink. The meaning was nothing like when Reggie Jackson uttered the phrase in the '70s. He simply meant that when he gets on base with Cabrera, Abreu and LaRoche coming up, scoring runs is much more probable.

As frequently happens in big league clubhouses, his teammates picked up on Eaton's proclamation. According to David Just of the Sun-Times, neon green T-shirts emblazoned with the phrase were the attire of choice Thursday in the team's quarters. And the stirring motion followed. Look for it again if the team keeps on rolling.

With series' looming in Milwaukee and Oakland - two last-place teams with a combined 23-42 record - maybe this is the week that the Sox solve their road woes. The Sox are 10-5 at home while winning only two of 13 away from The Cell.

If the Sox continue to stumble away from home, the good news will be that with the Bulls and Cavaliers battling one another few will notice.


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


1. From Bob Vanderberg:

About the Reds series: It showed us that, if you're gonna clean up the defense, LaRoche MUST play first base most of the time, five of every seven games . . . they can't fool around with Jose at first base anymore, not as long as LaRoche is healthy again (back problems earlier, remember?).

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