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The Magic Number Is The 3-Hole

Although it was hidden in the lower right hand corner of the front page, the icon with the top hat and cane and the number 14 nailed me right in the forehead last Tuesday morning. How could the Sun-Times do this?!?

Far more lethal than the dreaded lead-off walk, the Magic Number should be strictly reserved for teams like the Reds or Giants, the two newly-crowned National League division winners. We're talking about comfortable - how about double digits? - leads. Posting a Magic Number for the White Sox is folly.

Sure, the Sox edged Detroit 5-4 on Monday to take a three-game lead over the Tigers, but only a fringe observer wouldn't understand the team's precarious position with games looming in Kansas City and Anaheim.

I still remember the end of the 1964 season when the Phillies had a six-game lead with 12 games remaining. They finished tied for second.

Just last September, the Rays and Red Sox were fighting for the wild card on the final day of the season. The Rays trailed the Yankees 7-0 in the eighth inning, while the Red Sox, who hadn't blown a ninth-inning lead all year, led the Orioles 3-2 in the final frame. When it was over, the Rays won, Red Sox lost, and Tampa went to the playoffs.

The number 14 - the combination of Sox wins and Tigers losses which would snag the division for the Sox - was a cruel joke. The real number was nine or 10, the number of wins the Sox needed to advance to the postseason. So far they have one.

Forget Detroit. Of their remaining 13 games, 10 would be at Comerica Park, and 10 would be against the Twins and Royals. They rarely lose at home and, as of last Tuesday, they were a combined 15-9 against Minnesota and Kansas City.

Even though the Tigers stumbled badly on Sunday, losing a day-night doubleheader to the inept Twins, they remain at home this week for four games against the Royals before heading to Minnesota this weekend.

Watching our athletes struggle Saturday night on their way to a 4-2 loss to the Angels in a game that pulled Detroit even in the loss column, it was time to think of ways the Sox can salvage the division at this late stage.

The team has stopped hitting, scoring an anemic 11 runs in the last six games. The team that used to be among the leaders in hitting with runners in scoring position can't buy a hit with runners at second and/or third. They're having problems hitting the cutoff man; base running blunders killed them in Kansas City; and one never can be sure whether the starting pitchers will bring their A game or be meat for the opposition.

Robin Ventura arguably has been the major factor for the team's success, and his style and strategy have been praised by players, media, and fans. However, now is the time Robin and his staff need to shake things up, think outside the box, do something different. My sense is that forging ahead with the status quo is not going to work.

What can be done? Rework the lineup by dropping Adam Dunn to the six or seven spot and inserting Alex Rios at No. 3. This is not my brainy creation. It's been voiced by a number of observers this season, and a revamped lineup might help.

After watching Dunn fail a couple of times Saturday evening - he struck out with two guys on base in the third and grounded into a double play in the sixth - I looked to see who batted third for the other American League teams on Saturday.

Here's the list in no particular order: Carlos Santana, Alex Gordon, Edwin Encarnacion, Albert Pujols, Evan Longoria, Michael Young, Kyle Seager, Miguel Cabrera, Yoenis Cespedes, Alex Rodriguez, Adam Jones, Cody Ross, and Joe Mauer.

You're familiar with most of these guys because more often than not they are the best hitters on their respective teams. Dunn is not.

My ideal No. 3 hitter is someone who hits for a decent average, makes contact, and drives in runs. If he hits a few homers, great. But that isn't the major criteria.

The idea is that Nos. 1 and 2 get on base and the third hitter, who always bats in the first inning, drives them home or at least advances them and stays out of the double play.

Of the 14 players who batted third on Saturday night, Dunn was 13th in hits with 104. Only Tampa's injury-riddled Longoria had fewer (64) because he's played in just 65 games.

Simply put, Dunn doesn't get enough hits to merit batting third.

Has he improved over his horrid season of 2011? Without question. Has he hit some game-changing homers this season? Again, a resounding "yes."

But far too often he kills rallies, fails to make contact, and generally clogs up the top of the Sox lineup.

It's not fair to compare Dunn with mega-stars like Cabrera or Pujols. Instead consider someone like Seattle's Kyle Seager, whom most people never heard of. Seager is batting a modest .257 ,which still is 50 points higher than Dunn, and has almost 40 more hits.

Seager puts the ball in play, having struck out 99 times. That's less than half the times Dunn has trudged back to the dugout after strike three.

Dunn has a lifetime .240 average, and he hit a respectable .260 in 2010, his last year in the National League. Ohhh, what we'd give to see the big guy hit .260!

Comparing Adam Dunn to Kyle Seager borders on the ludicrous. Dunn's been hitting colossal homers for years and is paid handsomely while the 24-year-old Seager is a regular for the first time this season. One could construct an argument that Adam is more productive than Seager at No. 3, but who's going to take Dunn over guys like Cabrera, Pujols, Encarnacion, Jones, Mauer - you get the idea.

Please don't misunderstand. I think Dunn has value, and the way he handled himself in 2011 amidst his tribulations earned my respect. But why not drop him down to six or seven in the order? I may have been absent the day they taught sabermetrics, but no way Adam Dunn fits the mold of the third hitter in the lineup.

Alex Rios, however, does. He's seventh in the American League in hits; he has 24 home runs and 87 RBI. Alex reaches base a third of the time and has struck out 86 times this season. Not only would I rather have him batting third than Kyle Seager, I'd take the Alex Rios of 2012 over a number of other guys on that list from Saturday.

Would shaking up the lineup at this late stage be a sign of panic? Panic was Phillies manager Gene Mauch using his outstanding starting pitchers on two days' rest as the team lost 10 straight at the end of 1964. They won the final two games, but by then it was too late. The Cardinals won the pennant.

A.J. Pierzynski was quoted by reporters after Sunday's 4-1 loss by saying the Sox just needed to play better. Paul Konerko added, "Hopefully there's a cycle that's going to turn and it's going to be good for us."

I just don't think things will turn around without some engineering from Ventura. Try something a bit different as the Sox greet Cleveland for three games at the Cell starting tonight. It can't hurt. Less than two runs a game will only result in sending the boys home in 10 days.

Time is precious, but it's never too late to take a calculated risk.


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

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