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Opening Salvo

This new, improved edition of Ricky's Boys provided a glimpse of what could be the future Sunday afternoon in Kansas City. What a delight Lucas Giolito provided us after walking the first batter he faced on four pitches. We could be excused for thinking, "Here we go again."

But the kid's Hollywood background immediately kicked into high gear. Not only did he pitch far into the seventh inning without so much as walking another batter, but the Royals couldn't manage a base hit until Alex Gordon singled with one out in that seventh frame. What drama. So entertaining. We were expecting a rerun, but Giolito produced a creative, successful opening for his 2019 season.

Jose Abreu and Yonder Alonso were prominent cast members, slugging back-to-back home runs in the fourth inning, staking the Sox to a 2-0 lead in what would become a 6-3 victory to salvage the final game of the opening three-game series.

But that could be a problem. One out of three just won't cut it. And the way the Sox stumbled in the first two games in K.C. were painful reminders of the past.

Just to set the scene, the Sox never enjoyed the lead in either game Thursday or Saturday en route to 5-3 and 8-6 losses.

In the opener on Thursday, the fellas were shut out over the first eight innings, collecting just two hits. Second baseman Yolmer Sanchez booted an easy double play grounder, one of three errors the team committed. Three walks and a hit batsman in the ninth inning by a generous Royals bullpen helped the Sox plate a trio of runs, but Sanchez flied out with the bases loaded to end the game.

On Saturday starting pitcher Reynaldo Lopez departed with no one out in the fifth inning, having walked four batters and hitting another while pitching from behind all day. Tim Anderson and Eloy Jimenez let a pop-up drop lazily in short left field helping Kansas City score three times in the third inning. Anderson later was charged with his second error in as many days. Ricky's boys didn't quit - they rallied from four runs down - but they still played like, well, the past few seasons, much of the day.

All of this coming from a team that the oddsmakers have pegged as potentially the most improved ballclub in baseball. That is, if you look at the over-under number of wins the wiseguys assigned to the Sox prior to the opener. The number is 74.5, meaning that if you take the over, the Sox need 75 wins for you to collect. That's a 15-game surge over last season.

Last season's also-rans and rebuilders, the Orioles, Reds and Padres, were next in line, their over-under number resting at 12 games better than 2018.

Despite the 1-2 start there is reason for optimism because Yoan Moncada had a strong series, going six-for-13 with a homer and three RBIs. He struck out only twice, which is truly a step in the right direction for this former top prospect. With comments during the week about his desire to remain with the Sox for the rest of his career, Abreu slugged a couple of home runs and drove in four, while Alonso, splitting time with Jose between first base and DH, made a spectacular diving catch to protect Giolito's no-no in the bottom of the sixth.

Eloy Jimenez got a steady diet of breaking pitches but managed to bang out the first two hits of his career on Saturday. When the Sox insisted that Eloy needs to brush up on his defense, we saw what they meant. He looked tentative in left field, but intimidating at the plate. Watching him all season promises to spike attendance at The Grate, and this is one area where improvement is assured.

For 11 of the past 12 seasons, the team has drawn fewer fans than the prior season. That won't happen this year for a variety of reasons, not the least of which is that an average of 20,653 observers showed up in 2018. Gone among others are Matt Davidson, Avisail Garcia, and pitchers Miguel Gonzalez, Hector Santiago and James Shields while Alonso, Jimenez, Jon Jay (once he emerges from the IL), and moundsmen Kevin Herrera, Alex Colomé, Ivan Nova, and the soon-to-arrive Erwin Santana are the newbies. None exactly a Manny Machado or Bryce Harper, but clearly a more talented crew than the 100-loss contingent of last season. That's not saying much, but you have to start somewhere.

Overall MLB attendance last season dipped below 70 million for the first time in 15 years. Pace of play has received much of the focus, but that might be misplaced. Consider that almost half (13) of the 30 clubs saw their attendance increase because they either were contending for post-season play or fans in places like San Diego and Philadelphia were drinking the Rebuild Kool-Aid. With the addition of Harper, the Phillies drew two capacity crowds over the weekend whereas last year they had six sellouts the entire season. It can happen rather quickly, folks.

Meanwhile, the losers and tankers like Baltimore and Miami can't fool the fans. The Marlins drew 25,423 on Opening Day but just 6,503 the next day. With a few exceptions, if you win, they will come, despite having to sit for more than three hours.

In that regard, evidently everyone got the memo about speeding up the games. Last Thursday, which was Opening Day for everyone except the A's and Mariners, the average game time was two hours, 48 minutes - 12 minutes less than the 2018 average. If this were to continue, games would be the quickest since 2006.

The three fastest openers all clocked in at 2:18, and all three involved shutouts. The Tigers and Blue Jays played 10 innings in 2:25 with the Tigers winning 2-0. Meanwhile, the Mariners clubbed the World Series champion Red Sox 12-4 in Seattle, which took 3:34 to complete, the longest game on the docket.

The surprising, retooled Mariners have won five of their first six games and will provide the opposition starting Thursday for the opening series at The Grate after the Sox visit Cleveland for two games. The Mariners took three of four from the Red Sox over the weekend, pummeling Boston pitching for 34 runs. Former White Sox catcher Omar Narvaez will return to the South Side - the Sox swapped Narvaez for Colomé last November - after smoking Boston for a couple of homers and four RBIs. Chances are there will be no video tribute for Omar since he spent just three seasons with the Sox.

It will be in the 40s Thursday afternoon with a cloud cover blocking out the sun. Typical for an Opening Day in Chicago. The buses will line up early in the parking lots, the grills will fill the air with some of the best scents imaginable, the pops of beer cans will be heard, the teams will be introduced to take their places along the foul lines, and baseball will return to the South Side.


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

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