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Circus Trip

"The only thing this circus is missing is a top on it."

So said Matt Underwood, the Indians' play-by-play TV voice, amid the devastation Saturday during the second inning in Cleveland as the Tribe took a 7-0 lead. The seventh run crossed the plate in the person of ex-Sox favorite Juan Uribe, who had singled to chase current Sox non-favorite James Shields, who retired just five of the 15 hitters he faced prior to his departure.

Uribe had advanced to third on two consecutive walks - both on four straight balls - by reliever Matt Purke, another entertainer in this spectacle that once led the Central Division by six games. Granted, the Sox already were out of the game in the second inning when Purke arrived, but how can a legitimate big league pitcher come in from the bullpen with no ability to throw a strike? Oops. I think I just answered my question.

There's more. Sox catcher Dioner Navarro apparently concluded that he could pick off the 37-year-old Uribe at third, although Juan is in no danger of reminding anyone of Rickey Henderson. Either the ball slipped out of Navarro's hand, or he decided - in mid-throw - that this wasn't such a fine idea. The ball squirted off to the left toward the dugout, enticing Underwood to announce, "Navarro threw it to no one in particular."

Cleveland center fielder Tyler Naquin was the batter at the time, and Purke walked him as well, meaning that Uribe's run was now earned, arguably the only good news in the Sox's 13-2 ignominious defeat.

In three outings since being acquired from San Diego on June 4th, Shields has faced 60 batters, retiring just 26 of them. He's given up 24 hits, including five home runs. He's walked nine batters while striking out only five. He also fielded a come-backer to the mound against the Tigers last Monday with a man on first and threw so wildly to second base you had to wonder whether he needed an eye exam. (Despite Shields' five innings of seven-run ball in that game, the Sox came back and won 10-9 in 12 innings.)

You can't explain how the winner of 129 games over 11 seasons comes to the South Side and actually performs far worse than John Danks and Mat Latos, the departed pitchers he was brought in to replace. Consider this: Of the 60 batters who have stepped to the plate against Shields in his three starts, Big Game James has been behind in the count to 39 of them. In this menagerie he's now become Big Blame James.

Pitching from behind doesn't work in any league, let alone at the major league level. Hitters know that they are likely to see some kind of "get-me-over" offering, and they salivate at the prospect. If Shields, or anyone else for that matter, can't find the zone, disciplined hitters - another sorely-needed commodity for the Sox - are content to take a walk.

Maybe you can't count on Matt Purke to display that kind of command, but James Shields? (Purke, by the way, removes his hat, crouches down behind the mound, and says a prayer after taking his warm-up tosses. I respect one's faith, but, judging from his performances, this does not engender confidence for this fan.)

The culprit in Friday night's 3-2 loss in Cleveland was far more subtle. While the White Sox offense suffered from its typical impotence every time Jose Quintana pitches, doubles by Brett Lawrie and Avisail Garcia in the top of the ninth against the Tribe's closer Cody Allen evened the score at 2 and ensured that Quintana would at least get another "no decision."
Quintana was stellar, pitching into the eighth inning, giving up a couple of runs, walking one and striking out six. Unlike the aforementioned Sox hurlers, 74 of Jose's 111 pitches were strikes.

Nate Jones got the final out in the bottom of the eighth and got two called strikes past Carlos Santana to open the Cleveland ninth. According to the Sun-Times' Daryl Van Schouwen, both pitches were sliders, and catcher Alex Avila then wanted a fastball but was shaken off by Jones, who chose to throw another slider.

As a pitcher, it's good to have an 0-2 count. All of us who played baseball in our youth can recall what it felt like to be in a hole at 0-2. I suspect that no one - or at the most very few - reading this ever played professionally, meaning that as kids we recognized that striking out in an 0-2 situation was a distinct possibility. For most of us, it was the prominent image in our heads. Coaches would tell us, "Choke up. Protect the plate. Just get a piece of it."

Of course, the guys who were really good hitters could care less about the count. If they saw another strike, they were confident that not only would they not whiff, but that they'd get a hit. Of course, that confidence was built on innate ability. Those fellas continued to play at the next level while most of us settled for softball.

So here was Jones. Being a hard-throwing major league pitcher, he no doubt felt positive thoughts that he had Santana right where he wanted him. However, Santana obviously didn't share that opinion. Growing up in the Dominican Republic, it's a reasonable guess that as a youngster his mantra was, "See the ball. Hit the ball." And that's exactly what he did, depositing Jones' third straight slider into the right field seats for a walk-off home run.

The waste pitch on 0-2 lost its popularity long ago. Many times pitchers continue to attack the zone even on 0-2. In the past, pitchers frequently would rely on a high fastball as a waste pitch with the idea that they wouldn't get hurt because a high hard one is tough to hit, and an edgy hitter just might swing and miss at an elevated heater.

What's interesting is that Jones has fared better with 1-2 or 2-2 counts throughout his five years with the White Sox. After Saturday, hitters were batting .184 when Nate gets ahead 0-2. But that number diminishes to .151 and .168, respectively, after he has 1-2 and 2-2 counts. Therefore, the argument can be made that Nate would have been far better off to "waste" one to Santana rather than trying to fool him with yet another slider.

But that's the kind of season this is turning out to be for the White Sox, who lost again on Sunday in an extra-inning walk-off when Jose Ramirez's hard grounder went past Jose Abreu, giving the Tribe a 3-2 win and a sweep of the weekend series. Carlos Rodon pitched well enough to win, departing in the seventh inning with the score tied at 2.

The Sox garnered six hits in the 10-inning loss, their 26th in their last 36 games. The first four hitters in the lineup got all the hits, while Todd Frazier, Alex Avila, Lawrie, Garcia and J.B. Shuck went a combined 0-for-15, a clear recipe for ineptitude.

Manager Robin Ventura, who inexplicably remains on the job, has tried a variety of remedies to try to shake the team from its doldrums. Changing the batting order, benching the slumping Frazier - he's eight for his last 80 at-bats with 31 strikeouts and is absolutely killing the middle of the lineup - for a day, inserting Tyler Saladino on Sunday as a fifth infielder in the tenth inning, giving Rodon an extra day of rest, batting rookie shortstop Tim Anderson leadoff, and other strategies have failed to make a difference. And the injury to center fielder Austin Jackson has turned a once-stellar outfield into a patchwork of slow, plodding athletes where too many fly balls have become an adventure.

So now the circus visits Boston for four games beginning this evening to face Big Papi and the Red Sox, who are hitting 16 points higher (.291) than any team in baseball. If the losses continue to mount, putting that tent over the whole situation might be the next step.


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

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Posted on Oct 11, 2021