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Last weekend was my 50th high school reunion. If little else, it served as a plausible excuse to escape the sinking of the White Sox, 2012.
As with most of these celebrations, there is the common drill: gas cost 28 cents a gallon when we graduated; Kennedy faced the Cuban missile crisis; Marilyn Monroe was found dead; and James Meredith needed federal troops to protect him as he reported to English 101 at the University of Mississippi.
The White Sox opened the season six months ago, and the analogy goes like this: Newt Gingrich and Rick Santorum still had White House aspirations, not too many folks had ever heard of Gabby Douglas, nor had Michael Phelps established himself as the most successful Olympian ever. Gas wasn't cheap, but who could have anticipated a Chicago summer of five days breaking 100 degrees and another six weeks over 90.
Meanwhile, predictions dictated that the White Sox would lose 95 games.
In 1960, one-time Cub and Morton Grove resident Jim Brosnan wrote The Long Season, the first tell-all, inside-the-clubhouse expose that would later spawn books such as Ball Four. Many of the anecdotes and tales were humorous and entertaining. However, there was nothing amusing about the title of the book. And in those days, the schedule was only 154 games, not 162.
It is indeed a long season. Very long. Especially on the South Side.
The Sox started at 17-21, then reeled off a 64-45 mark, holding on to first place in the Central Division for most of the summer.
After that inspired 5-4 victory in mid-September with the Tigers, the Sox led by three games. The next night was the high-water mark when Robin Ventura's crew won their fifth straight at Kansas City, running their record to 81-66. With 16 games remaining, there seemed little doubt that we'd have playoff baseball in Chicago.
How can one explain the ensuing swoon? Ten losses in 12 games and a six-game swing for the surging Tigers, whose magic number stands today at one.
The numbers don't lie. The Sox stopped hitting, scoring just 31 times in the last 12 games while Detroit plated 65 runners in the 13 games since that loss at the Cell. The Sox had been among the leaders in hitting with runners in scoring position, but very quickly clutch hits have disappeared.
Sox pitching also vanished; they've walked 34 hitters in the last five games alone. And when they haven't been issuing bases in balls, they've been behind hitters - and paying for it. That doesn't work. Hitters sitting on 2-0 or 3-1 know that they can wait to get the pitch they're looking for. I haven't counted the number of hits Sox pitchers yielded when behind in the count, but I'd guess it hasn't been inconsequential.
Yet in the past couple of weeks, the Sox's pitching would have been good enough if the team had been scoring runs like they were in mid-season. The pitchers have given up four runs or less in nine of the last 13 games, yet the team won only three times. The offense simply ran out of gas.
Part of the reason - perhaps the most significant part - is lack of a bench. With the exception of Alex Rios and Alexei Ramirez, Ventura gave his players a chance to watch a game or two. The problem has been that the bench didn't step up.
Say what you wish about Ozzie Guillen, but he was skillful at giving his regulars time off. He kept his fellows fresh. It was easy because he had bench guys who could play.
In 2005, Guillen never hesitated to sit infielders Joe Crede, Juan Uribe or Tadahito Iguchi because he had Pablo Ozuna, who could play just about anywhere. Not only was Ozuna a formidable defender, but he hit .276 and was a base-stealing threat. (In 2006 in the same role, Ozuna hit .328.)
Experienced big leaguers Timo Perez and Willie Harris also were role players on the '05 champions, and later Geoff Blum performed his post-season heroics.
Uribe eventually became a substitute and a very good one, filling in at third, short, and second in 2008, and saving the team's rear end when Crede's aching back sent him to the DL.
Compare those guys to Robin's choices. First it was Kosuke Fukudome, Brent Lillibridge, and Eduardo Escobar. Fukudome hit .171 in 24 games and was released by the Yankees in early September; Lillibridge was batting .175 when he departed for Boston; and Escobar, who showed some talent, was sacrificed for Francisco Liriano.
That left the Sox with Dewayne Wise, an asset since joining the team at the trade deadline, along with Jose Lopez, Ray Olmedo, and Orlando Hudson, all of whom are batting below the Mendoza Line.
Dan Johnson, a superb pinch hitter, has been here in September, but his value is strictly as a pinch hitter since Ventura opted not to use Johnson in place of Adam Dunn or Paul Konerko, each of whom got a bit of rest alternating as DH.
Because of Wise and also Jordan Danks, Ventura has been able to rest Dayan Viciedo and Alejandro De Aza although Alex Rios has been an iron man, playing all but three games this season. Lacking a backup shortstop, Ramirez has played in as many games as Rios. He remains outstanding in the field, but he's been killing rallies lately instead of contributing to them. A few games on the bench might have recharged his batteries.
Would more rest have helped Beckham and Youkilis? We'll never know for sure, but how could they sit when the subs couldn't hit?
The one guy who might have helped by spelling the infielders was Escobar, but Kenny Williams can't be second-guessed for getting Liriano. It was a gamble worth taking, though Liriano hasn't made much of a difference and no doubt will be gone at the end of the season.
Only a miracle - three Sox wins at Cleveland and three Detroit losses at Kansas City - will prolong the season, and that would only create a tie with the Tigers. The long season is about to end, and the finger-pointing has already begun on talk radio and in the blogosphere. Just don't forget that when the offense disappeared, there was no bench to pick up the slack. It takes a village to raise a child, and it takes an entire roster to win a division.
Roger Wallenstein is our man on the Sox beat. He welcomes your comments.
1. From Steve Corman:
Another wonderful column right on the money!
I can't stand seeing the same lethargic lineup every day and Robin refusing to even think about juggling.
Why does he have Youk (Mr. MOT) batting second when he hasn't ever had a successful sacrifice bunt?
It kills me to see Dunn up there, even with 41 HRs, not even attempting to punch the ball to left field for an easy hit and he won't even have 100 RBIs. The strikeout total is overwhelming.
I could go on forever.
The Giants and Athletics out here are prime examples this year of how to put together a team. Both always seem to be able to get clutch hits when needed or a key strikeout from a pitcher.
I'll never not be a diehard Chisox fan but this season has been a real kick in the stomach. Unfortunately I see a big falloff coming for the next 2-3 years after this debacle!