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South Side 'Stros

We love underdogs. Especially when they're right in our backyard on the South Side. Watching the White Sox, the American League's worst team, sweep the league's top ballclub, the Houston Astros, in three games last week was a welcome antidote for the losses that have been piling up in near-record fashion.

Houston invaded with a 71-40 record, while Rick Renteria's outfit crawled along at 41-68. Only the Phillies and Giants have performed worse than the Sox this season. Nevertheless, the Sox won all three games with a combination of timely hitting, improved defense, and strong starting pitching, a commodity lacking in availability this season.

On Tuesday, the Sox jumped on former Cy Young Award winner (2015) Dallas Keuchel for three first-inning runs, building a five-run lead after four innings en route to an 8-5 triumph. Miguel Gonzalez pitched eight innings of one-run ball on Wednesday in a 7-1 blowout, and Thursday already has been designated The Moncada Game as the rookie second baseman homered to tie the game at 2 in the ninth before his walkoff single won it in the 11th.

Add in a 6-3 victory over Kansas City on Friday, and you have a most unlikely four-game winning streak from a club that needed the previous 24 games to notch four wins. Talk about underdogs. May as well omit the prefix.

While Houston was in town, the comparison between their rebuilding process and the White Sox current situation was inevitable. The Sox are on a pace to lose 99 games this season. Houston endured greater hardship just a few years ago.

In the three seasons, 2011-13, the Astros lost a total of 324 games or an average of 108. In 2013 they dropped 111 contests, despite having current Astros Jose Altuve and pitchers Keuchel and Brad Peacock, who exited Thursday's game in the seventh inning with Houston ahead 2-1, on the roster.

Meanwhile, outfielder George Springer was percolating four years ago at Triple-A where he hit .321 with 37 home runs while 2012 first overall draft choice shortstop Carlos Correa - he missed last week's games while nursing torn ligaments in his thumb - was tearing up A-ball with a .320 batting average. Springer debuted the following season while Correa's first games actually were at Sox Park in early June of 2015. Correa registered his first major league hit and his first home run at The Cell in that three-game series which, incidentally, the White Sox also swept.

Marwin Gonzalez, who is having a breakout year this season with a .314 average and 20 homers, shuttled back and forth between the minors and the Astros in 2013. Now 28, Gonzalez can play just about anywhere in the infield or outfield, making him a valuable asset for the Astros.

Once the Astros began to turn things around - they finished 70-92 in 2014 and 86-76 the next season - they became buyers and traders rather than sellers. Players like Jake Marisnick, Carlos Beltran, Brian McCann, Evan Gattis and Josh Reddick came over to Houston either through trades or free agency. Cuban Yuli Gurriel was signed at age 31, and he's become the regular first baseman, slashing .293/.321/.803 this season.

Apparently this is the way a successful rebuilding movement works, but it's doubtful if the Sox process will take as long or include the successive 100-defeat seasons that Houston racked up.

Sox general manager Rick Hahn is well along with the departure of his best players other than Jose Abreu. If you look as recently as Opening Day of this season, four of the starters - Melky Cabrera, Todd Frazier, Cody Asche and Jacob May - are not on the team, although the latter two remain with the organization at Triple-A Charlotte.

Opening Day starter Jose Quintana is gone, as are relievers Michael Ynoa, David Robertson, Tommy Kahnle and Dan Jennings. Nate Jones and Zach Putnam are injured and out for the season, while Anthony Swarzak, who started the season at Charlotte before becoming a bullpen stalwart, now is pitching in Milwaukee.

While Correa has more than lived up to his billing, there have been misses for Houston draft picks. They selected pitcher Mark Appel with the first choice in 2013 and he's never thrown a pitch in the majors. The Astros traded him to Philadelphia prior to the 2016 season.

Contrast that to the White Sox debut Friday night of 23-year-old Reynaldo Lopez, a member of the Sox courtesy of the Adam Eaton swap with the Nationals. Lopez pitched six innings, allowing four hits while walking three and striking out six. Mike Moustakas reached him for two solo home runs as Lopez displayed a fastball in the upper 90s along with a changeup and slider that kept hitters off balance.

Young pitchers who throw as hard as Lopez sometimes have a tendency to try to overpower the hitters, but Lopez displayed savvy and intelligence as he mixed up his offerings. Sure, it's just one game, but the buzz among the 18,137 in attendance was palpable. I mean, Lopez was taking the place of Mike Pelfrey. That in itself was cause for elation.

Friday also marked the return of Melky Cabrera, who acknowledged the standing ovation with his endearing smile when he came to bat in the top of the first. The Sox showed the predictable video tribute to Cabrera in the middle of the inning, adding to the embraceable warm feelings of the evening.

Cabrera accounted for the conclusion of the modest White Sox winning period on Saturday night by taking a 3-2 Aaron Bummer pitch with a runner on and depositing it into the second row of the left centerfield bleachers. His third homer as a Royal gave the visitors a 5-4 victory.

And Sunday marked a return to the slipshod play that has characterized much of the season for the South Siders. A couple of errors and another ineffectual start by Derek Holland (two innings, seven runs, seven hits, three walks) put the Royals up 8-0 after three innings. From that point the Sox played to a 6-6 tie. Big deal. They lost 14-6.

Last week's streak wasn't the season's best for the Sox, who won six straight back in April. Even those Astros of the 111 losses won six in a row at one point. The 'Stros were 51-96 near the close of the 2013 season when disaster of sorts struck. They lost their last 15 in a row.

Even as the White Sox of 2017 continue to develop their young talent, going into a 15-game tailspin any time the next seven weeks seems unlikely. Or is it?


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

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