He Hits Dingers

You're always looking for that unexpected gem on a rebuilding ballclub, a guy no one ever heard of, a ballplayer devoid of the hype surrounding athletes with names like Jimenez, Kopech and Moncada. General managers' lives are filled with plots, schemes and strategies aimed at building a system that will spit out players who will lead the franchise to the promised land called post-season play.

Every now and then a bit of luck plays a part such as the case of Daniel Palka.

He was unwanted by the Twins, who put him on waivers last November. A product of Georgia Tech originally drafted by the Phillies - he didn't sign - and later in the third round by the Diamondbacks in 2013, Palka was a minor-league power hitter seemingly destined for a career just a step below the big league level.

In six seasons, Palka played on 13 different teams in this country, Venezuela and the Dominican Republic. We're not talking about a five-tool player here. More like one tool: He's capable of hitting a baseball a long way at a very fast clip. He doesn't run well, he hasn't hit .300 in five years, and his defensive skills would remind no one of even Melky Cabrera, who patrolled left field for the White Sox a season ago.

In 2016, playing at the Double- and Triple-A levels, he hit 34 homers and drove in 90 runs. The Twins "rewarded" him in 2017 with another season at Rochester, their top farm team, before placing Palka on waivers late last fall.

Sox GM Rick Hahn picked up the muscular outfielder/DH without giving up anything in the deal. Once again Palka opened this season at Triple-A after going 3-for-25 in spring training, and his season began like all the others with a few dingers, a strikeout in about a third of his at-bats, and a .286 batting average.

However, when Avisail Garcia went down in late April with a severe hamstring pull, Palka got the call. It wasn't as though the guy needed more seasoning after 715 games in professional baseball.

The left-handed swinging power man hit his first homer in his third game. Sunday against the Red Sox in a White Sox 8-0 pasting of the 94-44 Bostonians, he slammed his 20th and arguably his most memorable. This blast halfway up into the right field stands, came four pitches after hitting one a wee bit foul which was first ruled a home run by the umpires. Both connections set off the scoreboard, and Palka, accepting the charitable gesture by the umps, circled the bases after his initial "home run."

Palka hits a homer every 17.1 at-bats, which puts him 24th in baseball. (Oakland's Khris Davis is tops at 12.3.) He's also playing with a bit of an edge. When the Yankees' Masahiro Tanaka, by no means diminutive in stature, hit him in the arm with a pitch last Monday, Palka glared toward the mound before catcher Kyle Higashioka stepped in front of him to prevent a skirmish with the potential to register on the seismograph in The Bronx.

What fun! How a team that plays .346 baseball after 107 games before winning 18 of its next 30 contests defies explanation. But that's exactly where the White Sox find themselves after winning four-of-seven last week against the Yankees and Red Sox, the two teams with the best records in baseball.

And the Sox are doing it without their best player, first baseman Jose Abreu, who's been sidelined after surgery - the NHL would call it "lower body;" the Sox say "groin area" - on August 22, and a bullpen, which wasn't very effective to begin with, once again decimated by trades.

While many of the prospects, most notably Eloy Jimenez, won't be around until future seasons, we have placeholders like Palka, Nicky Delmonico, Kevan Smith, Matt Davidson, Adam Engel and others who clearly recognize that this may be their only chance to establish themselves as major league players. They take nothing for granted, working hard and never simply going through the motions that too many times afflict players with guaranteed contracts and veteran status.

Just maybe some of these guys like Daniel Palka will become part of the future.

Count centerfielder Engel in that category as well. Already an accomplished, if not outstanding, defensive player, Engel won the centerfield job by default last season when he slashed an abhorrent .166/.235/.517. Not only has he been exceptional with his glove this season - the theft of would-be home runs have made every highlight reel - but Engel no longer is a sure out. Since the beginning of August, he's hitting .274 to bring his season's mark to .238. Not overwhelming, but inconceivable a year ago.

I suppose the Sox can thank the schedule-makers and their Central Division foes where only the Indians have a winning record for the recent awakening. Being able to play Kansas City, Detroit and Minnesota 19 games apiece each season is enough to get the competitive juices flowing for a fledgling band like the current White Sox. The Twins, Tigers and Royals share a .399 winning percentage this season, and the Sox have taken advantage of their Central brethren by beating them 10-of-14 games in the current streak.

Therefore, we can be forgiven if we were a bit dubious before last week when the Yankees and Red Sox provided the opposition. It's one thing to beat up on lousy teams, but let's see what you do against the big boys.

Tampa Bay and Cleveland completed the list of opponents of the last 30 games. The Rays, Indians, Yankees,and Red Sox have a winning percentage of .603 this season, yet the Sox split the last 16 games against that quartet.

While only two teams, the Phillies and Cardinals, which both have winning records, have committed more errors this season than the White Sox, the South Siders defense has been much improved in the past month or so with 16 errors in the current 30-game streak. The Sox had 82 boots in their first 107 contests.

As mentioned, Engel has been solid in center field, and the defensive progress also has been especially prominent at the shortstop position where Tim Anderson has become as efficient as any shortstop in baseball since the All-Star game. He's been charged with just three errors in that span, one of which was a throwing error. Last year's Gold Glovers Andrelton Simmons of the Angels and the Giants' Brandon Crawford have committed, three and six, respectively.

Not only has Anderson become much more sure-handed on routine ground balls, fielding the ball more in the center of his body rather than on the side, he goes into the hole as well as anyone. The kid has a bullet of an arm, which has been on display for balls hit into the hole. Anderson had one of the greatest games of his career on Sunday with a homer and two doubles along with his stellar defense.

Much has been conjectured about the managing skills of Ricky Renteria, and his future is yet to be determined. However, he and his coaches need to be recognized for the progress of some of the players like Engel and Anderson. They didn't simply improve and mature on their own. It's not a stretch to conclude that they've been listening to their mentors and working hard to get better.

The prognosis for September would seem to indicate that the resurgence will continue. The Sox have 16 games remaining against teams with losing records while meeting Cleveland for six games and the Cubs for three.

While heart rates might not detonate over the Sox' and Tigers' battle for third place in the Central Division - they're tied going into the three-game set beginning Monday - another few homers by Palka and some game-saving catches by Engel will aid in keeping a positive outlook before the autumn colors arrive.

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

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