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Big Game James Neither

He's tough, durable, consistent, an innings-eater. He's back in the American League playing for a contender. He's a presence in the clubhouse.

These labels and descriptions all have been applied to James Shields the past two days since he became the newest member of the White Sox on Saturday. All general manager Rick Hahn had to barter were pitcher Erik Johnson - owner of a 7-6 record and a 4.50 ERA in 18 big league starts - and 17-year-old prospect Fernando Tatis, Jr. Such a deal!

From the early reaction and reviews, it sounds like the second coming of Jack McDowell, not Jeff Samardzija.

While the next 105 games obviously will reveal the Sox' fate for the season, we can at this time disperse credit in Hahn's direction. No one can say he's not trying. His ballclub has been in a scary swoon since May 10, losing 18 of 24 contests after Sunday's pathetic 5-2 loss in Detroit as the Tigers completed the weekend sweep.

Releasing John Danks has made no difference whatsoever. Giving Tyler Saladino the shortstop's job couldn't stem the tide. Batting Jose Abreu second didn't provide relief from the nightmare.

So the Sox now have a 34-year-old veteran who has pitched a minimum of 202 innings over the past nine seasons for Tampa Bay, Kansas City and San Diego, winning between 11 and 16 games each year. And wins, my friends, are the only statistic that can right this sinking ship on the South Side.

Seemingly the trade is especially timely since heretofore ace Chris Sale got beat again on Saturday in Detroit, his second loss against the nine consecutive wins he posted to begin the season. Sale didn't pitch horribly, lasting into the seventh inning before exiting with the Sox trailing 4-2 before eventually bowing by the 7-4 final.

While Sale could have used stronger support from his mates, more than a few eyebrows were raised by the fact that he struck out only two batters. Sale is of the quality that when he really needs a strikeout, he can get one. Not so on Saturday.

Then Jose Quintana, who had been the league's ERA leader, self-destructed on Sunday, departing in the fifth inning after giving up the deciding four runs to the Tigers. Quintana had a poor day, being touched for nine hits and three bases on balls against the hard-hitting Tigers.

So the addition of Shields, who will debut at The Cell on Wednesday against Max Scherzer and the Washington Nationals, comes at a time when the top two Sox pitchers were beaten on consecutive days. In addition, Carlos Rodon has won just one game since the middle of April, while Mat Latos's ERA has ballooned to 4.02 from 0.74 since April 24 when he was 4-0.

Miguel Gonzalez, who had battled hard for a spot in the rotation, now is the long man out of the bullpen. He responded nicely on Sunday, relieving Quintana and retiring four of the five hitters he faced.

The buzz created by the Shields acquisition momentarily relegated the many ills plaguing this team to the back burner. However, one only has to look at the numbers to dampen the enthusiasm linked to the arrival of the veteran right-hander. Shields has a respectable 3.76 career ERA in 2,180 innings. But with the way the Sox score runs - or don't score them - that might not be good enough.

In 27 of their 57 games this season, the Sox have scored three or fewer runs. Extrapolating those figures for nine innings, if Big Game James holds the other guys to three, he can escape with a no-decision. If he's nicked for four, odds are about 50-50 he gets beat.

The plain and simple truth is that the Sox are an offensively challenged group who more often than not are really boring to watch. Occasionally they are able to rebound from a deficit like last Tuesday against the Mets when they trailed 4-0 after five innings. With the talented Steven Matz pitching for New York, the Sox appeared doomed, but three runs in the sixth and three more in the eighth gave the Sox a 6-4 victory.

That game was an aberration. Watching the Detroit series on TV over the weekend, you could excuse Sox fans for being envious of the Tigers, who boasted five .300-plus hitters from Miguel Cabrera's .307 to Cameron Maybin's .414. With Melky Cabrera, the Sox leading hitter at .275, gone for a family emergency, Adam Eaton's .270 was tops for our fellows.

Furthermore, using .300 as a yardstick, it's been like that for quite some time. Since 2010 and including this season, the Sox have had five .300 hitters: Paul Konerko in 2010 (.312) and 2011 (.300), Alex Rios in 2012 (.304), Eaton (.300) and Abreu (.312) in 2014.

That's the fewest in the AL Central. In the same time span, Cleveland and Minnesota have had seven .300 hitters, while the Royals have had 14 and the Tigers a robust 23.

I acknowledge that hitting .300 doesn't necessarily translate to runs scored, but it's no secret that the game is so much more interesting and entertaining when your ballclub sprays out base hits on a consistent basis. You think the Tigers are ever out of a game?

Not only that, but some of the Sox's division rivals keep coming up with guys you never heard of who wind up hitting .300. Like Andy Dirks, who hit .322 for the Tigers in 2012. Or consider 2010 when ex-Sox hero Scott Podsednik posted .310 for the Royals while David DeJesus closed at .318, his career best.

Jose Ramirez - quick, tell me who he plays for - is batting .317 for this year's Indians while the Royals' Paulo Orlando stands at .333. At the risk of sounding like the president of the White Sox Whiners Association, why can't our club produce young talent who can hit? Why can't our athletes have a career year?

Unless there is an abrupt turnaround, Shields will find himself frequently pitching in pressure situations where giving up three or four runs will be too much for his teammates to overcome.

Granted, Todd Frazier is tied for the AL lead with 18 homers - he slugged four on this recent 2-7 road trip - and ranks in the top ten in RBIs with 40, but the guy is hitting a meager .219. That might be OK - certainly an improvement over Adam Dunn or Adam LaRoche, although the comparison is embarrassing - if Abreu could pick him up and match what he's done the past two seasons. Abreu is being pitched in with fastballs and away with sliders. The result is a .251 batting average with just 18 extra base hits even after a prodigious home run Sunday in the first inning against Justin Verlander. In his first two seasons, Abreu had 73 and 67 extra base hits, respectively.

Meanwhile, the remainder of the lineup is filled with too many .240 - or worse - hitters. Trying to put together a big inning has been improbable, if not impossible. The Sox had runners at second and third against Verlander in the third inning Sunday but failed to score. In the fifth they couldn't plate Jimmy Rollins, who was on third with one out. These situations happen time and time again, contributing greatly to the team's funk.

Meanwhile, the bullpen, which blew three leads a week ago in Kansas City, pitched 13 scoreless innings mid-week in New York where the Sox took two-of-three from the Mets their first series win after dropping six straight.

However, the 13-inning 2-1 triumph on Thursday, a game that got national headlines because of Matt Albers' double after going nine years with only one plate appearance, took its toll. The first 12 innings were yawn-inspiring until Albers took third on a wild pitch and scored on Abreu's sacrifice fly before closing out the Mets in the bottom of the inning.

But the bullpen was depleted so that manager Robin Ventura had to call on Tommy Kahnle and Matt Purke to relieve Rodon in the seventh inning Friday in Detroit with the Sox trailing 4-2. Pitting those two pitchers against the Tiger lineup was akin to fighting a forest fire with a garden hose, and the Sox wound up losing 10-3.

Kahnle was sent back to Charlotte after the game, the fourth time this season he's been optioned. Might be a good idea to hire him an Uber driver and tell him to keep the motor running. Or better yet, after five appearances and a WHIP of 2.54, let the poor guy stay in Charlotte awhile and try to get fixed.

The bottom line is that if the White Sox could have scored far earlier on Thursday, the bullpen would have been available on Friday in a two-run game. But that's apparently asking too much.

Unless Hahn decides to part with top prospects Tim Anderson and/or Carson Fulmer, the chance of picking up an accomplished hitter such as free agents-to-be Yoenis Cespedes, Jose Bautista or Edwin Encarnacion is unlikely, especially since they play for contending teams who won't be sellers.

No, unless this team shakes itself out of its doldrums, the next moves figure to be in the dugout. Hitting coach Todd Steverson's job should be in jeopardy if the Sox keep scoring just a couple runs a game. Ventura, now in his fifth season, has a dismal .462 winning percentage. Sitting next to him is Rick Renteria, someone with managerial experience who speaks Spanish and is well-respected despite getting sacked by the Cubs in favor of Joe Maddon. He already knows the players and would be a logical replacement.

The homestand which begins Tuesday features the Nationals followed by the Royals and Tigers. Shields will pitch twice. Baseball lifers like to say, "You can never have enough pitching," but even if Shields is effective, unless the Sox bats awaken, the losing demons will continue to inhabit this outfit.

The spin says the team remains just three games out of first place (four games in the loss column). However, if things don't quickly change, the Sox will be wind up being closer to the last-place Twins than the division-leading Indians.


Former Bill Veeck bar buddy Roger Wallenstein is our White Sox correspondent. He welcomes your comments.

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