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Walking And Leading Off

As much as anything else, baseball is a game of rituals, and the White Sox practiced one on two occasions last week.

I'm talking about the Art of the Walk-Off.

First it was Tuesday night against the Yankees, when Jose Abreu rifled a shot between third and short, scoring Willy Garcia and Alen Hanson, both of whom were on base via walks, giving the Sox a 4-3 victory.

Then on Friday against Texas, Melky Cabrera raised chalk with a laser past first base, capping a frantic three-run uprising as Tim Anderson and Hanson raced home as the Sox were victorious 8-7.

In each instance, the ritual commenced as soon as the winning run scored, although Cabrera's celebration was a two-part event because the Rangers challenged the call.

With nothing to lose, manager Jeff Banister wanted the umps to take a closer look at exactly where the ball landed. It caught the baseline, and the celebration continued in the Sox dugout.

These days the walk-off victory goes something like this:

1. Batter gets winning hit.

2. Batter acts like a deer in headlights, frantically running to elude his ecstatic teammates.

3. Teammates catch him.

4. Some have water bottles which they empty on batter's head.

5. Batter is taken to the ground and teammates pile on.

6. Everyone retires to the clubhouse in a joyous mood.

7. Home team fans exit stadium also feeling euphoric.

It's all quite predictable, although ripping the batter's shirt off - a simply lovely add-on that many fans enjoy - sometimes is part of the ritual.

Abreu on Tuesday finally got back to the dugout in a sleeveless t-shirt. Cabrera claimed that he was thankful on Friday that his pals didn't remove his uniform top since he wasn't wearing an undershirt.

Seems to me folks would have liked seeing him bare-chested. Maybe next time.

Of course, this all needs to be orchestrated and refined since this is a time when hammies might be pulled, obliques strained, or lats bent out of shape. All the roughhousing resembles more of a serenade than a brawl.

For good reason. Every team remembers back in 2010 when Kendrys Morales, then playing for the Angels, hit a game-ending grand slam, culminating with a leap onto home plate and into the arms of his adoring teammates. Only problem was that Morales landed awkwardly, breaking his ankle and ending his season. Morales remains a solid hitter today, but he was coming off a 34-homer, 108-RBI season, and he's never quite equaled those numbers since the injury.

The walk-off home run has a bit of a different twist in that the hitter circles the bases and tosses his batting helmet skyward about 30 feet from home plate. He still makes a triumphant leap to touch home, but teammates are careful to give him plenty of clearance before the water bottle dousing, and the leap is not quite as high or demonstrative as it used to be. Call it the Kendrys Morales Syndrome if you will.

These glorifications dedicated to the last-gasp victory do get tweaked every now and then. While his teammates poured two five-gallon containers - one filled with water, the other with Gatorade - over Cabrera's head on Friday, it was executed in the dugout as the athletes waited for the umpires to rule on the challenge. So the jugs were close at hand. No one was in danger of a rotator cuff or elbow injury caused by carrying five gallons of liquid across the diamond.

For the most part, the individual water bottles have replaced the larger tanks. It may be that groundskeepers are not so keen about cleaning up sugary energy drinks from the environs of big league ballparks.

We also see very few shaving cream pies smashed into the faces of the games' heroes. In the past, this occurred primarily during post-game interviews. Maybe it's the possibility of a broken nose or thick soap in one's eyes - rendering the athlete inactive the next day or longer - that signaled the end to this shenanigan.

Or possibly the practice comes under the heading of hazing which, of course, is frowned upon in professional sports.

Whatever the reason, the shaving cream pie seems to have gone the way of the four-pitch intentional walk.

Which is an obvious segue to the amount of time the White Sox spent last week engaged in competition. The seven games - a four-game split with New York and a 2-1 series edge against Texas - averaged three hours, 31 minutes. In addition, Thursday's 4-3 win over the Yankees didn't end until 1 a.m. due to an almost three-hour rain delay at the game's start.

Sunday's 6-5 win over Texas, thanks to an eighth-inning, two-run home run off the bat of Yolmer Sanchez, featured 20 strikeouts, ten walks, four Sox errors, and three replay reviews, one of which took more than four minutes.

Between the two ballclubs there must have been at least 15 conferences between pitchers, catchers, infielders and coaches. It seemed that signs were being communicated orally in tense situations. Another 15 minutes and the game would have taken four hours.

But when the Sox win - an occurrence which likely happens only two or three times a week - who cares how long it takes? The boys aroused the denizens last week by scoring 14 runs in the eighth and ninth innings. Down 6-1 on Monday to the Yankees, Rick Renteria's group staged a ninth-inning rally keyed by a three-run homer by Tim Anderson. Yankee manager Joe Girardi was compelled to use closer Aroldis Chapman, who induced Todd Frazier to fly out to end the game at 6-5.

However, Chapman, recently activated from the disabled list, was then unavailable on Tuesday, and Dellin Betances performed miserably in the closer's role, loading the bases on two walks and a hit batter before Abreu's heroics.

The Sox now are 3-4 in walk-off decisions. Last season they went 7-10 in those situations.

Finding Frazier
To follow up on last week's column, I floated the idea of inserting Todd Frazier into the leadoff role, the seven games last week provided more insight.

Leading off an inning last week, Frazier went 3-for-10 with two homers and a walk. With no one on base - the obvious situation at least once a game for the leadoff man - Frazier went 4-for-15 with three walks and a HBP. His on-base percentage for those instances was .421, an ideal percentage for a batter hitting first.

He didn't fare as well with runners in scoring position, picking up only one hit in five official at bats, but he also walked three times and drove in two runs in those situations.

Frazier has been walked 43 times this season, which is 19 more than anyone else on the team. His on-base percentage is a respectable .330, a few ticks above the league average. Seven of his 15 home runs have come leading off an inning. In the first inning this season, Frazier is hitting .350 compared to .213 for the year.

Is it not clear that Frazier is a markedly better hitter early in the game with no one on base in addition to his ability to draw bases on balls? Rickey Henderson hit 297 home runs as a leadoff man, so it's alright to have a power hitter bat first.

That's the last time you'll hear about Frazier leading off in this particular space. I promise.

(Editor's Note: I hope not!)

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

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