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Are we to believe that the White Sox recent streak of nine wins in 12 games, including taking two of three at Wrigley Field over the weekend, is a portent of a drive to postseason contention? Improbable but not impossible. This puzzling group has shored up its defense while the pitchers have led the charge in close, low-scoring, nail-biting games. Meanwhile, hits still are few and far between, let alone runs.
But we must remain calm. This is not the time for hopes to rise because most teams continue on a similar pace in the season's final 80 games like they performed in the initial 80. Lest euphoria reign, let's pause this week for the four-day All Star break. It comes at an opportune time. We can relax along with the entire Sox roster sans Chris Sale, who will be the team's lone representative Tuesday night.
It's also a good time to take a peek at history.
Most often the teams qualifying for the postseason at the All-Star break remain in the same position the rest of the season. Take last year, for example. At the break, all five American League teams that eventually kept playing into October, occupied the top spots in mid-July: Baltimore, Detroit, Kansas City, Oakland and the Angels. The A's traded places with the Angels in the second half, as Anaheim won the division after trailing Oakland for much of the season, but the A's still qualified for the playoffs.
In the National League, there was a bit of movement as the Braves and Brewers faded to be replaced by the Cardinals and Pirates.
In the vast majority of cases, teams in position for the postseason at the All Star break are favorites for staying there. But at the same time, a club or two will have a surge to overtake one of the front runners.
In 2014, the Pirates went 39-28 after the break, while St. Louis was 38-28. Nice records to be sure, but not overwhelming. What hastened their ascension to the postseason was Milwaukee slumping to 29-37 while Atlanta went 27-40.
Aside from the fact that the White Sox are just five-and-a-half games out of a wild card berth, they will have to leapfrog six clubs to get there. We can't expect all of them to tank any more than we can count on the White Sox playing at .750 like they have the last two weeks.
But chances are there will be a team or two that gets hot and makes a bid to play past 162 games. Can the White Sox be one of those clubs?
Yogi Berra once said, "Good pitching will beat good hitting and vice versa." Of course, we know what he meant, and the Sox proved it last week when they took three-of-four from the imposing Toronto Blue Jays, who came to The Cell as the highest-scoring team in baseball.
Chris Sale beat Mark Buehrle 4-2 on Monday (more about that later) before Jose Quintana lost a tough 2-1 decision the next night. (Quintana may have the least luck of any pitcher in baseball. The Cubs beat him 3-1 on Sunday.) After Adam Eaton's eleventh-inning home run beat the Jays 7-6 on Wednesday, Jeff Samardzija shut out Toronto 2-0 on Thursday yielding a mere four hits.
Proving that Yogi was onto something, the mastery continued on the North Side with a 1-0 win on Friday followed by another Sale masterpiece on Saturday in a 5-1 decision. In Friday's game, the Sox scored the lone run without the benefit of a hit as Emilio Bonifacio was hit with a pitch, stole second, and was sacrificed to third by Eaton. He scored on pinch-hitter deluxe J.B. Shuck's flyball to left.
After Sox pitching racked up 30 consecutive scoreless innings - the longest streak by a Sox staff since 1986 - the Cubs put up a run on Saturday. For the last 12 games, the White Sox pitchers have a sparkling 2.16 ERA. Couple with that a defense that accounted for five double plays on Friday along with a number of outstanding plays, and the Sox have been able to overcome an attack that still has scored the fewest runs of any team in baseball.
Adding a dose of offense to the mix certainly would help the Sox' prospects, but there have been many light-hitting teams that won a lot of games. The Cardinals have the best record in the major leagues, yet they're tied for 18th in runs scored. If Sox pitching and defense come close to where they've been the last couple of weeks, they'll continue to improve.
Of course, what could mess with this dynamic is the real possibility that Samardzija - a free agent at season's end - will be dealt between now and July 31. Such a trade would signal that the front office is giving up on this season with an eye to the future, at which point The Cell will draw about as many people as Radio Shack in August and September.
It's conceivable that Samardzija is not as attractive as some observers think - Johnny Cueto and Cole Hamels are out there as well - since he no doubt would be a two-month rental for whoever gets him. We saw how that worked out last season when Oakland's Billy Beane traded the likes of Addison Russell for Samardzija and Jason Hammel in early July before adding Jon Lester right at the deadline. A contender last year, the last-place A's still are reeling.
Manager Robin Ventura was one of the most outspoken members of the 1997 White Sox when they made the infamous "white flag trade" at the deadline. In third place with a 52-53 record but trailing division-leader Cleveland by just 3.5 games at the time, three top pitchers were traded to the Giants, who went on to win their division while the Sox finished at 80-81.
Ventura was asked last week how the club would deal with losing Samardzija, and he diplomatically said that it obviously would hurt to lose a pitcher of the Shark's stature. No matter what you think of Ventura's attributes (or lack thereof) as a manager, he is not a quitter. If Samardzija departs, you wouldn't blame Ventura if those acid memories from 18 years ago are once again stirred up.
Chances are Samardzija will stay if the resurgence continues.
There is, however, another aspect that could derail the team, and that is injuries. While Detroit is playing without Miguel Cabrera after missing Victor Martinez for much of the season, Kansas City's All-Star left fielder Alex Gordon will be out for at least seven more weeks with a severe groin strain. The Tigers are barely a .500 team, although their bullpen is partly responsible, and we'll have to see how the Royals react to Gordon's absence. So far the Sox have been extremely fortunate. They could ill-afford losing any of their starting pitchers, closer David Robertson, or Jose Abreu, Melky Cabrera, Avi Garcia, or Adam Eaton. The team has been remarkably healthy so far this season. Staying that way could be key to run for the playoffs.
Another key could be what Steve Stone referred to last week: home runs. For a team that has so many problems scoring, the long ball could be a panacea. Two of the last nine wins came via the courtesy of home runs by Eaton and Tyler Flowers in the team's final at-bat. The Sox have hit only 60 homers in 2015. Only two teams have hit fewer. As unlikely as it sounds, if guys like Adam LaRoche, Cabrera and Garcia could find their long-ball stroke, the offense would be immensely more potent. With six round-trippers, leadoff man Eaton has just one less homer than Garcia and Flowers and three less than LaRoche. How sad is that?
At least the boys are playing some exciting games, none more so than last Monday when shortstop Jose Reyes's error behind Buehrle opened the gates to an eighth-inning three-run rally as the Sox escaped with a 4-2 verdict. Buehrle didn't give up an earned run. You could excuse him if he was confused, thinking he was still pitching for the White Sox. Both Sale and Buehrle pitched complete games. Neither issued a walk. That's been done just one previous time this season back in April when Seattle's Felix Hernandez bested the Twins' Phil Hughes 2-0.
The time of Monday's game was a slick 1:54 despite two challenges by Toronto manager John Gibbons. Of the 95 active major league pitchers with at least 100 starts, Buehrle works the fastest. His games take an average of 2:39. Sale is 10th at 2:47.
Talking about Buehrle, he won on Sunday, making him 10-5 for the season. He now has 209 career wins, of which 161 came in a White Sox uniform. (I had the wrong number in last week's column; 161 is correct.)
Adding to Monday's fun were about 15,000 "K cards" given to fans as Sale tried to strike out ten batters for the ninth consecutive game. He fanned only six Blue Jays, but snagging the victory was so much sweeter.
So as Sale heads to Cincinnati, the rest of us who follow these events can take a break. A few days of void of leaving runners on base, botched bunts, and ill-timed errors are a welcome relief. When play begins again on Friday at The Cell with a doubleheader against the Royals, we'll see whether the White Sox can continue their upward spiral. It won't take long to find out.
Roger Wallenstein is our man on the Sox. He welcomes your comments.
Posted on Jan 12, 2018