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Respecting 90 - Or So

When the Astros, Red Sox and Yankees each surpassed 50 wins last week, it marked the earliest date ever that three teams from the same league reached that plateau.

So it goes to reason that with all that winning, there's gotta be a big dose of losing to balance the thriving members of the American League. Lo and behold, the White Sox and Royals stepped up last week to join Baltimore in accommodating those 150-plus triumphs. All three of those teams now have lost at least 50 games.

While the Astros ripped off 12 wins in a row, ending with a 2-1 loss to Tampa Bay last Tuesday, the White Sox were once again heading in the opposite direction, sporting an eight-game losing stretch until they beat Oakland 6-4 in the second game of a doubleheader on Friday night. A 10-3 drubbing of the A's on Sunday gave the Sox a split of the four-game series and stemmed the bleeding going into a three-game set at home against the Twins starting on Tuesday.

Included in the losing streak were lopsided losses to Cleveland (12-0 on Wednesday) and Oakland (11-2 in Friday's opener). Young pitcher Reynaldo Lopez described himself and his teammates as "clowns" after the fiasco in Cleveland, raising the first red flag that just maybe not all is well in the team's clubhouse.

On Saturday, rightfielder Avisail Garcia, newly-activated after two months on the disabled list, lost a routine two-out, eighth-inning flyball in the sun. It fell for a double and led to the deciding run in a 7-6 loss. The Sox had scored five runs in the first inning only to blow the game. It was the A's biggest comeback in nine years. These things tend to occur when the have-nots are rebuilding for the future.

Winning teams usually are strong up the middle defensively, and here is another factor in the Sox' frustrating performance so far this year. Both shortstop Tim Anderson and second baseman Yoan Moncada had a rough time catching the baseball last week. Moncada now has been charged with 11 errors, tops for all second baseman. Add in Anderson's 12 miscues for a total of 23, by far the most of any double-play combination. This is the definition of weak up the middle. The good news is that both are young players who should improve. The Sox are counting on it.

Moncada rebounded on Sunday with his best game in his short career. His two-out, three-run double in the bottom of the fourth wiped out a 2-0 Oakland lead, and an inning later he homered with two men on to hike the lead to 10-2. He also played flawlessly in the field.

Fighting through the folly and anguish of Sox misfortunes, manager Ricky Renteria has been consistent with his message of everyone exerting 100 percent. The Sox run hard on routine grounders and pop-ups. Outfielders chase balls in the gap at top speed. They are exhorted to pay attention and concentrate on each pitch. Buy into the program - or culture, if you wish - or sit on the bench and contemplate your deficits.

This is how to play the game the right way. Well, not exactly.

Take last Wednesday, for instance, in the opening inning in Cleveland. Jose Ramirez had just hit his 22nd home run off Lopez after a walk and an error by Moncada. Designated hitter Edwin Encarnacion was next. On a checked swing, he tapped weakly to first baseman Jose Abreu. After hesitating for an instant, Encarnacion ran slowly toward first where Abreu, waving off Lopez, beat Cleveland's DH to the bag by 30 feet.

Indians' manager Terry Francona is regarded as one of the finest skippers in the game. After four losing seasons with the Phillies, Francona won a couple of World Series with the Red Sox and another pennant with Cleveland two seasons ago. Last year the Indians won 102 games. For his 18-year career, Francona's teams have won about 54 percent of the time.

Encarnacion is a 35-year-old professional hitter who every two or three innings is called upon to take his turn at bat. Every now and then he plays first base. After hitting 42 homers and driving in 127 runs two seasons ago in Toronto, he was rewarded by Cleveland with a four-year $75 million contract. Had Encarnacion sprinted to first base last Wednesday, Abreu likely would have had to toss the ball to Lopez for the out. This is a skill the White Sox don't always execute with perfection. Is it too much to expect a fellow like Encarnacion to run 90 feet before retiring to the air-conditioned clubhouse for a half-hour or more before participating once again?

Would Renteria have pulled Encarnacion for lack of hustle? Francona didn't, and later Edwin banged out a couple of hits, driving in two runs. He hit a grand slam yesterday, his 18th homer along with 53 RBI.

This is a perfect illustration of the double-standard that baseball displays. The expectation for a guy like Encarnacion is far different than it is for developing prospects and guys who occupy the 25th spot on the roster. Renteria's approach is clear to his young players, some of whom are vying for what could be their only shot at the major leagues. He's already shown no hesitation in benching Anderson and Moncada for what he called a lack of "focus and concentration." If Daniel Palka were to jog to first base, his next at-bat could be at Charlotte rather than the South Side.

A few seasons ago when Bo Porter was managing Houston to triple digits in losses - a likely scenario for the White Sox and Renteria this year - Hawk Harrelson would praise the Astros for "playing hard all 27 outs." Of course, Porter, who now is special assistant - whatever that means - to the Atlanta Braves' general manager, got fired, after which the Astros went on to become part of baseball's elite. It might be worth checking out just how hard all the Astros run to first base on routine plays today.

While the White Sox were dropping five of seven games last week, one development in baseball passed without much fanfare, that being the Angels' Mike Trout, who's only 26, playing in his 1,000th game. Since fans in the East and Midwest are contemplating bedtime when Angel games are starting, for the most part Trout has been a much under-publicized player even though he's the game's best.

An outstanding centerfielder, he's leading the league in runs scored, home runs, bases on balls, on-base percentage, and OPS. He was Rookie of the Year in 2012 and has two MVP awards in his seven full seasons. Obviously the writers have taken note of his accomplishments.

In the wins above replacement category, Trout has no peers. An 8-plus WAR for the season is considered MVP quality. Trout already has a WAR of 6.6 in a bit less than half a season. Not being an expert in sabermetrics, I think this means that the Angels with a 41-37 record would be about eight games under .500 if not for Trout. The Indians' Ramirez is next in WAR, and he's not even close at 5.0.

If you ever wonder about the inexact science of scouting and drafting, consider that the then 18-year-old Trout was the 25th pick in the first round of the draft in 2009. This was two choices after the White Sox selected Jared Mitchell, an outfielder from LSU who rose as high as Triple-A but never appeared in a major league game. His lifetime batting average in the minors was .227.

You can't be too critical of the Sox for passing on Trout since 23 other teams did exactly the same thing. But that one move theoretically changed the course of the franchise. With Trout, a future Hall-of-Famer, playing centerfield and Adam Eaton and Avisail Garcia on either side and a rotation that included Chris Sale, we would not be looking at a rebuild process today. Just saying.

Meanwhile, this spring's top White Sox draft pick, Oregon State second baseman Nick Madrigal, will lead his team beginning tonight in the best-of-three series against Arkansas for the College World Series championship. The kid is slashing .395/.455/1.006 for the season. In 39 games, he's struck out only six times.

And, oh yes, he runs hard to first base.


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

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