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My friend Patrick dropped by Friday evening, enticed more by the chops sizzling on the barbecue than the prospect of watching the Sox drop the second of four straight losses to the Twins over the weekend.
Settling in front of the tube, he asked me whether I watch the whole game. "Well, yeah," I uttered. "Of course I do," thinking, "Don't most people?"
My pal is also a Sox fan, but the color of his team is red, not white. So I couldn't fault him for being more enthused about the meat on his plate rather than the chances of Hector Noesi holding the Twins in check. But still.
Patrick was long gone when the Sox tied the game with two runs in the top of the ninth only to see former South Sider Eduardo Escobar slide across the plate in the bottom of the inning as a potential win evaporated, giving the Twins the 5-4 edge. In the four games, Minnesota outscored our guys by a measly five runs.
Pouring over the Sun-Times on Saturday morning, I couldn't help but wonder whether my friend's question the night before was the one most people would ask. Who is watching?
An estimated 20,000 fans jammed Grant Park on Sunday to watch the World Cup match between Portugal and the USA on a screen, another event I watched in its entirety. So I had lots of company for that one.
But the lead story in Saturday's sports section was about the retirement of Bears' long snapper - I'd like to meet the guy who coined that term - Patrick Mannelly. Please understand that someone like Mannelly - even though he played just a few downs a game - deserves respect for risking life and limb for 16 years in the NFL. But featured coverage in the middle of June?
In a fantasy world, let's suppose that Sox utility man Leury Garcia inexplicably played 16 seasons on the South Side before announcing his retirement in the middle of the football season. You think that would be the lead sports story?
While the White Sox aren't exactly the soup du jour in Chicago these days, perusing Friday night's box scores suggested that people elsewhere recognize that we're in the midst of an entertaining baseball season.
At Yankee Stadium, 46,197 saw New York top Baltimore. Attendance in Cleveland (33,545), Kansas City (38,475), Cincinnati (33,103), Colorado (41,238), St. Louis (44,061), Washington (36,608), and Arizona (29,295) indicate that heading to the ballyard on a Friday night in June remains an attractive proposition. The Sox and Twins played before 32,071 in Minneapolis, though the Sox are averaging 20,354 at home this season, third worst in the majors behind Cleveland and Tampa Bay.
While the emergence of Jose Abreu and leadoff man Adam Eaton has given Sox fans optimism for the future while providing a fine dose of immediate entertainment, a big problem for this club is its lack of ability to put together a streak. (Check that. I refer to a winning streak. We know that they're very capable of losing a bunch in a row.)
Most of the season - which will pass the halfway point this week with games in Baltimore and Toronto - the Sox have been flirting with the .500 mark. Fans of other teams such as Kansas City can rationally think, "We're hanging in there. If we can just put together a winning streak, we might be able to catch the Tigers."
Of course, that's exactly what the Royals did recently when they won 10 in a row. When the streak began, the Royals were in fourth place, five games behind Detroit. When it ended, they were leading the division by a game-and-a-half. Now they've lost four straight while the Tigers have won four in a row to re-gain the lead.
Anyone watching the Sox - hello, out there - realizes that starting pitching dictates that they might win as many as four in a row, which they've done once this season, but a longer streak is just about impossible. Chris Sale obviously is capable of winning consistently, but one or more amongst John Danks, Noesi, Jose Quintana and Andre Rienzo would step in and lay an egg to derail any momentum the team might create.
It doesn't take a master's in math to understand - barring a slugfest - those five starters would each most likely have to pitch two solid games in a row for the Sox to win 10 straight, and that's not about to happen. In the Royals' recent streak, their team ERA was 2.90, which says it all.
The White Sox club of 1967, when they finished with an 89-73 mark, is interesting when considering streaks. The team was in first place as late as September 6th before finishing fourth, just three games behind the Red Sox. This from a group that hit only .225 with 89 home runs, averaging just 3.28 runs per game. (This year's numbers so far are .256/75/4.38.)
However, the '67 Sox ran off 10 straight wins in May and only once lost as many as five in a row. (The present club has lost four straight games five different times this season!)
With pitchers Tommy John, Joe Horlen and Gary Peters making approximately two-thirds of the team's starts, the Sox didn't have to hit much to be competitive. The team's ERA was a sparkling 2.45, and opponents hit an anemic .219.
What that team couldn't do was draw fans. Attendance across baseball was much less in those days, but I sat in Comiskey Park along with just 12,664 other fans the last Friday of that season when the Sox still were mathematically in the race. Attendance that night was right at the season's average for the Sox. Apparently fans weren't enthralled with a steady diet of 1-0, 2-1 and 3-2 games.
What was disheartening about last weekend's sweep in the Twin Cities - it's been 20 years since the Sox lost four straight on the road to the Twins - is that they had just completed a homestand with two wins over the San Francisco Giants, who came to town with the best record in baseball
Danks pitched well in Tuesday's 8-2 breather, backed by homers from Gordon Beckham and Dayan Viciedo.
And the he bullpen held on just long enough in Wednesday's 7-6 win as Sale beat Giant ace Tim Hudson on a day when Sale struggled. Ronald Belisario, who's been better lately, stranded the tying run on first base in the ninth inning to record his seventh save on 10 opportunities.
Of course, Belisario didn't get a chance to save anything in the Twin Cities. Perhaps the most distressing bullpen performance occurred on Friday after an RBI single by pinch hitter Paul Konerko and a run-scoring double by Eaton tied the game at four in the top of the ninth. (The Sox have scored more ninth inning runs than any team in the league.)
After getting the first hitter in the bottom of the inning, Daniel Webb walked the eighth- and ninth-place batters in the Twins' lineup. When was the last time that happened?
Scott Downs was summoned to retire the leadoff hitter, Danny Santana, but Belisario couldn't get Brian Dozier, whose opposite-field single to left scored the game-winner.
I don't blame Belisario so much as Webb who put the runners there in the first place.
One bullpen pitcher who has performed admirably of late is former starter Scott Carroll. Since losing his spot in the rotation, Carroll has pitched in six games out of the bullpen since to a 1.83 ERA over 19-plus innings.
Meanwhile, Rienzo has been looking more like, well, Scott Carroll as a starter. Maybe it's time for those two to switch places. Manager Robin Ventura would have little to lose in doing so since Rienzo has lost his last five starts. C'mon, Robin, make a move.
Our fellows now sit at a season-low six games under .500 as they scratch, claw, and grind to find a way to put together a steak. We suspect that isn't likely for the reasons already discussed. Nevertheless, there are those of us who will keep watching. Most of the time it will be for the entire nine innings.
Roger Wallenstein is our man on the Sox. He welcomes your comments.
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