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Weirdness Reigns

Baseball in the Time of Coronavirus made its debut over the weekend amid joyous cries of "Baseball is Back," empty stadiums, cardboard cutouts of fans, dubious rule changes, and the inconsistent wearing of face coverings by players, coaches and umpires. Weirdness reigned.

Dr. Anthony Fauci began the festivities on Thursday by throwing out the ceremonial first pitch in Washington. Maybe shot-putting would be a better description as the ball arced far to the left of home plate, touching down about 50 feet from the nation's leading epidemiologist. As futile as it was, I've seen worse from White Sox relievers.

Moments before the Nationals and Yankees squared off, Washington's sensational young outfielder Juan Soto was scratched from the lineup after testing positive for the virus. This came on the heels of the commissioner's office announcing that 16 teams will now advance to post-season play. Just think: We could have our first sub-.500 ballclub in the playoffs, just like pro hockey and basketball. What's next? A short centerfielder?

Soto was far from alone. The Marlins, who are accustomed to playing in an empty stadium, have 14 players and staff members who have tested positive - putting the season in danger. Suddenly it seems like small potatoes that the Braves have two veteran catchers, former White Sox Tyler Flowers and Travis d'Arnaud, who have played in 1,280 big league games between them. Both tested positive, meaning that two rookies - one being William Contreras, brother of the Cubs' Willson - with six games big league experience were activated to handle the Braves' catching duties.
Former White Sox Matt Davidson, who slugged 46 homers the seasons of 2017-18 on the South Side before playing with the Rangers' Triple-A affiliate last season, had signed with the Reds to be one of their DHs. He batted twice on Friday before testing positive, putting his career in limbo.

So we shall see if the season proceeds, but from what we've seen so far, some things remain the same. The Twins can still hit. In taking two of three games from the White Sox at The Grate, the Minnesotans scored 27 runs, banged out 30 hits, and stroked seven home runs. Nelson Cruz, the elder statesman at 40, spent the weekend taking batting practice against a Sox staff that emerged from the three games with an ERA of 9.00, the worst in baseball.

Cruz departed town with a slash line of .538/.571/1.956, along with three homers and 10 RBIs. Thankfully, the local outfit won't see Cruz and his pals again until the end of August - providing everyone is still playing then.

All was not lost as the Sox scored a 10-3 victory on Saturday, displaying many of the reasons for optimism that have been emphasized since the end of last season. Newcomer Dallas Keuchel, a soft-tosser in the Mark Buehrle mold, was superb, leaving in the sixth inning with one out and two runners on base and the Sox leading 5-0. Reliever Steve Cishek, who switched sides of our city during the off-season, was victimized by one of Cruz's blasts, but the game developed nicely from there as the Sox continued to score while the visitors did not.

Luis Robert showed his many talents both at bat and in the field. With all due respect for Jim Landis, Ken Berry, Chet Lemon and Aaron Rowand, the team hasn't had a centerfielder who covers as much ground since, well, maybe never. The soon-to-be 23-year-old looked comfortable at the plate, hitting his first homer on Sunday and scalding a couple of balls right at the defense.

However, the demons from seasons past still reared their ugly heads beginning Friday evening with Lucas Giolito's first pitch of the season to Max Kepler, who deposited the ball into the empty right-field bleachers. He also homered in his next at-bat.

Also in the first inning, second baseman Leury Garcia screwed up a probable double play, failing to extract the ball from his glove. A sloppy ground ball, which went for a hit, ensued, and before fans got settled in front of their TVs, the Sox were in a 4-0 hole.

On Saturday, shortstop Tim Anderson, whose 26 errors last season led the major leagues, misplayed a ball off the bat of Cruz for his first miscue of the season, but Keuchel then retired Jorge Polanco on four pitches for the third out.

While Giolito had a breakout season a year ago, the young pitcher could be excused if butterflies were fluttering as he made his first Opening Day start. Had his mates helped him defensively, he still could have exited the first inning with only Kepler's blast denting his outing. Giving a wrecking crew like the Twins four or five outs in an inning is an invitation for disaster, and that's exactly what occurred. Sure, Giolito might have pitched over the shoddy defense like Keuchel did the next day, but Giolito still is a work in progress.

There's little doubt that, barring injury, the White Sox will score with far more regularity than they did a year ago. However, if they fail to catch and throw the ball any better, then the wins won't come as easily as people think. Anderson holds the key at shortstop, the busiest position in fair territory. He's a gifted athlete, and he's still young at 27. He needs to improve.

Aside from the threat from the coronavirus, Sunday's 14-2 pasting at the hands of the Twins resulted in potential injuries unrelated to COVID-19 that this team simply can't afford. Starting pitcher Reynaldo Lopez, who most certainly needs to show improvement this season, was totally ineffective after retiring the first two batters. The next five all reached base on a walk, a double, another walk, Jake Cave's grand slam home run, and another single, after which Lopez admitted to right (his throwing) shoulder "tightness." That ended Reynaldo's afternoon, and we're awaiting a report of the extent of his injury.

Left-fielder Eloy Jimenez, who provides a crucial piece of the Sox offense, left the game shortly after Lopez with "light headedness" after crashing into the fence chasing Cave's homer. Eloy made a valiant effort, but you had to wonder what the Sox bullpen was doing since Jimenez hit the wall very close to where the relief staff was sitting. We'll never know whether Eloy's mates gave him warning of how close he was to the wall.

Finally, after he accounted for two doubles, a homer, and four RBIs in the first two games, as well as playing a stalwart third base, manager Rick Renteria held Yoan Moncada out of Sunday's loss, saying that he didn't want to stress his best all-around player after Moncada had been idled by a positive corona test. Then Renteria said that he especially didn't want Moncada throwing a baseball. Let's hope an injury isn't the real reason and that Moncada plays against Cleveland this evening.

Other Developments Of Note
* Pitcher Carson Fulmer, the Sox' top draft choice in 2015 (8th overall), was designated for assignment, and the Tigers picked him up. Fulmer never developed in the Sox organization, exiting with a 6-9 record and an ERA of 6.56 in 44 games. Every now and then Fulmer would break off a Grade A slider or fastball, but he never consistently threw his best stuff for strikes. In three years at Vanderbilt, Fulmer averaged 3.8 walks per nine innings. At the big league level, that number rose to 6.1. He simply couldn't throw strikes. Maybe the Tigers can fix him.

* Yolmer Sanchez, the popular second baseman who hit .252 and won a Gold Glove for the Sox last season, didn't make the Opening Day roster with his new club, the Giants.

* There were four extra-inning games in the baseball over the weekend. With the new rule that inserts a runner on second base to open each extra frame, all four contests ended in 10 innings. Looks like the commissioner's office is getting what it wanted - no marathon games and stress on bullpens. The rule is misguided. Extra-inning games provide what the avid fans like, which is more baseball.

* Seems like there's no universal agreement about masks. Some players in the dugout wear them while others don't. Oakland's Matt Olson hit a walk-off grand slam on Friday, and the predictable celebration followed at home plate with some players masked up and others bare-faced. Social distancing was absent.

* In the What's Missing Department, tossing the ball around the infield after an out with no one on base apparently is not allowed this season. That's too bad since the practice gives players a chance to catch and throw the ball, to stay involved, to remain part of the game.

The risk of having more people touch the ball and spreading the virus obviously is the reason, just a speck of the weirdness of this strange and mystifying time.

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

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