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Not Yet Royal

Finding anything positive about a miserable 10-1 Opening Day drubbing in Kansas City was a challenge. However, I was fortunate to be driving cross-country last Monday listening to the Royals' broadcast on Sirius as the White Sox dropped the first of their four-game swoon to inaugurate the season.

This was the 47th Opener for Kansas City, a franchise born from major league expansion in 1969. Kansas City had been without a team for two seasons after Charlie Finley moved the Athletics west to Oakland. Denny Matthews was in the radio booth when those first Royals were introduced, and he's been there ever since.

My familiarity with Matthews was limited, but after listening to him and his sidekick Steve Physioc for three hours, my admiration for his account of a lopsided game grew with each inning.

One aspect of Matthews' style and substance emanates from the fact that he never was a big league player. I was raised in the era of non-playing broadcasters such as Bob Elson and Jack Brickhouse in Chicago. But our radios also picked up Bob Prince in Pittsburgh, Ernie Harwell in Detroit, Earl Gillespie in Milwaukee, and Harry Caray in St. Louis when Harry was at the top of his game. By the time he emigrated to Chicago, his skills were badly eroded.

Mel Allen usually handled World Series telecasts with his "Hello, everybody," and, of course, Vin Scully, at age 87, continues to be the voice of the Dodgers, a position he's held since 1950.

Like Matthews, all these men filled dead time on the air with information and descriptions which enhanced the listeners' understanding and images of the game. Whereas former players dwell on how the game was played in their eras, continuing to replay their careers and too often ignoring what's happening on the field, the non-athletes depended on relating as much information as possible about the performances and personalities of the current players.

For instance, as newcomers Dan Jennings and Kyle Drabek emerged from the Sox bullpen to give up five runs over the last two innings on Monday, making a rout out of a fairly close game, Matthews pointed out - painfully - that the visitors' bullpen had a 4.38 ERA last season, good for 28th out of the 30 major league clubs. On more than a few occasions, Matthews gave credit to general manager Rick Hahn for his off-season moves. However, in the next breath, he correctly said that the rebuilt Sox bullpen was the key to any improvement made by the Chicago team.

Using his own club as an example, Matthews reviewed the 2014 American League champions who were 65-5 when they led after six innings. When ahead after seven innings, the Royals were 72-1, and they lost just one game out of 80 when leading going into the ninth inning.

The credit goes to the tandem of Kelvin Herrera, Wade Davis and closer Greg Holland, as effective as any trio of relief pitchers in baseball. Holland converted 46 of 48 save opportunities, while set-up men Herrera and Davis pitched a total of 142 innings without giving up a home run. Their ERAs were 1.41 and 1.00, respectively.

All three pitched in last week's sweep of the Sox, with Holland getting two saves. Herrera and Davis each made two scoreless appearances.

Then there's the maturation of Kansas City third baseman Mike Moustakas, who hit just .212 a year ago and at one point was demoted to Triple-A.

Manager Ned Yost batted Moustakas second last Monday, and he came up in the bottom of the third inning against Jeff Samardzija in what was then a 1-0 game. Alcides Escobar had doubled to lead off the inning, and Moustakas laid down a successful sacrifice bunt. After Escobar scored on a soft single by Lorenzo Cain, Matthews exclaimed, "The sabermetrics people say you can't give up any outs, but without Moustakas's bunt, Escobar wouldn't have scored." This, according to Matthews, is Royals baseball.

So was taking advantage of the Sox's inability to hold on runners. The Royals stole six bases in the three games, and Minnesota on Friday and Saturday swiped three more before Geovany Soto finally cut down Danny Santana in Saturday's 5-4 victory - but only after a challenge by Sox manager Robin Ventura.

Is it unreasonable to assume that after seven weeks of spring training Don Cooper's pitchers would be well-schooled in the art of holding runners close? That apparently is not the case. Tyler Flowers and Soto both also threw balls into center field on steal attempts. The sabermathematicians also disdain the stolen base, but word will travel fast that running on the White Sox is a safe proposition.

Going back to Moustakas, he bunted again on Thursday in the Royals' 4-1 win over the Sox. Once again it came in the first inning, moving Escobar to third who then scored on Cain's ground ball.

Displaying his versatility, Moustakas homered in the Opener against Samardzija, giving the Royals a 4-0 edge in the fifth inning.

This led to a Matthews story about Royals Hall-of-Famer George Brett, who spends a lot of time around the team and at one time was their batting coach. Brett, who knows Moustakas well, approached the young ballplayer around the batting cage one afternoon and inquired, "Who are you?" A confused Moustakas was at a loss for words and finally uttered, "Mike Moustakas."

"Then be Mike Moustakas," emphasized Brett. "Don't try to be someone else." The message: Don't try to do too much and use the talent you have. Judging from the season's first three games, Moustakas has taken Brett's approach to heart.

Thus Matthews provided an informed, detailed description of the Kansas City ballclub - and like other observers, he has a firm handle on what our White Sox need to do to compete with the likes of the Royals, Tigers and Indians.

The White Sox bounced back nicely over the weekend with 5-4 and 6-2 wins over an inept Minnesota club that dropped three pop-ups on Sunday while failing to hold a 4-0 lead Saturday as Samardzija, Zach Duke and David Robertson didn't allow the Twins a run over the final seven innings.

Chris Sale came off the disabled list and looked as good as ever in six innings of work, yielding just one run and five hits while walking only one and striking out eight. The bullpen of Javy Guerra, Dan Jennings, Duke and Robertson allowed a lone run over the final three innings, and a two-run homer by Gordon Beckham in the eighth inning gave the Sox their final cushion.

Thankfully the Sox came to life after an especially disappointing home opener. Starter Hector Noesi couldn't get out of the fifth inning. When he left the Sox trailed just 2-0, which was fortuitous for the home team since Noesi walked six, threw two wild pitches and committed a balk. He needed 32 pitches to escape the first inning. He could be on a short leash, especially with Carlos Rodon serving his time at Charlotte as he awaits being summoned to the big club.

Zach Putnam, one holdover from last season's bullpen, put the game out of reach coming on in the eighth inning and giving up three runs for the final 6-0 margin. Putnam, who had a rocky spring, also served up a two-run, eighth-inning homer to Lorenzo Cain last Wednesday, which was the deciding blow in the 7-5 Royals' victory. So it was a rough week for Putnam, another pitcher who very well could be on the bubble if he doesn't regain his effectiveness of last season.

* * *

While the home opener was a boring, poorly played game on the part of the White Sox, the party atmosphere was typical of the rites of spring. The tailgaters were out in all their glory with barbecues sizzling and the smell of grilled meat permeating the premises.



And we were introduced to the Melkmen, an apparent new fan club for left fielder Melky Cabrera. The guys were part of the pre-game scene before taking their seats behind Melky in left field.



The Sox also just may have noticed the bathroom difficulty on the North Side earlier in the week. Port-O-Lets were strategically placed throughout The Cell.



With a crowd announced at more than 38,000 despite approximately 5,000 empty seats, the day was ripe for the Sox to notch their first win. But poor pitching, defensive lapses, mistakes on the bases and just three hits highlighted the areas where the team needs to show consistent improvement.

Now it's on to Cleveland and Detroit this week. The Indians have started slowly. Like the Sox, they are 2-4. Detroit won its first six games as did the Royals after going out to Anaheim and sweeping the Angels.

In Kansas City, the White Sox saw what it takes to be a superior ballclub. Let's hope they become more Royal-like in the coming weeks.


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

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