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June 2011 Archives

What wasn't supposed to be much of a series turned out to be three games worth of exciting baseball, punctuated by a lot of the controversy we have come to expected from the White Sox-Cubs rivalry. My quick hits:

The final scores:The Sox won the series 2-1, but only after dropping the first game 6-3. Both the second and third games were one-run affairs (3-2 and 4-3) in which it really did seem like anything could happen right down to the final pitch.

Heroes: Carlos Pena and Starlin Castro for the Cubs, Paul Konerko, Sergio Santos and A.J. Pierzynski for the Sox. Pena hit a homerun in each game, including the game-winner in Game 1. He is finally, happily in a hot zone--just in time to be traded. Castro continued to show he will hit any pitcher, any day, under any conditions--there is no stopping him. Plus, his fielding is improving. Paulie hit homers in Games 2 and 3 to give him a five-game homer streak and keeping him among league leaders in homeruns (21) batting average (.327, and that's after 0-3 in Game 3) and a bunch of other categories. Santos saved both White Sox winners, and A.J. went 5-for-11 in the series in two RBIs in Game 3 on a rare triple. And, he scored on a bunt.

Zeroes: Adam Dunn. He was so conspicuously worse than anyone else that no one else is worth mentioning. Dunn is supposed to be teeing off against interleague pitching, and in particular, Cubs pitching, to prove he isn't a complete wash-out. Instead he went 0-8 with five strikeouts in two games against the Cubs. It's the definition of hitting bottom--we can only hope.

Honorable mentions: Carlos Zambrano deserves one for not giving Sox fans what they wanted. When the Sox jumped on Z for a 3-0 lead in the first inning of Game 1, he looked steamed, and the entire not-quite-full ballpark was waiting for a meltdown. Somehow, he kept it together and kept the Sox scoreless the rest of the way.

Controversy #1: It wasn't Zambrano that blew a fuse in Game 1. It was Ozzie, who got ejected arguing a call at home plate after Alexei Ramirez appeared to foul a ball off--the home plate ump called it fair and an out after The Missile was tagged by Geovany Soto (To be honest, I'm still not sure who was right.) Ozzie, amid full-throated yelling, turned and kicked Geo's catcher's mask toward the Sox dugout. Ok, that one started in controversy, but ended in hilarity. The papers tried to bait Geo into agitation over the whole thing, but he wouldn't bite. What was he supposed to do--turn into Michael Barrett?

Controversy #2: Alfonso Spriano said something to the effect that the booing he has received in Wrigley while playing poorly is worse than he has received elsewhere--even New York. He later clarified that he did not mean the fans were worse at Wrigey than anywhere else, and that, of course, they have the right to boo. The funny thing is that Al-So seemed inspired by the controversy, having a good Game 3, actually stealing a base (!) and playing defense in a, well, adequate manner. The not-so-funny thing is that Soriano's extra effort only highlighted that he has given less than that in other games. I mean, if he can still run--which came as a surprise to most of us--why isn't he stealing bases more often (I don't mean every game, just more often than never.)

Controversy #3: Jake Peavy and A.J. appeared to have a dugout confrontation in Game 3, even though the Sox were winning. Peavy was decent in his return from the DL, though there were hesitations between a couple pitches where Peavy either said something to A.J. or to himself, and an odd moment when Don Cooper came out to the mound to chat even though the Sox were up 3-0. These two battery mates are both well-known bulldogs who will both bark at you and then bite you. A.J.'s handling of the pitching staff sometimes appears to involve a little bit of tough love, but you can't argue the results of the last several seasons. Meanwhile, I don't know that barely occasional starter Peavy has earned the right to go toe-to-toe with A.J. in public. It was one moment when the Sox looked a lot more like the Cubs.

Is there more to talk about? Probably...

Somewhat lackluster attendance at The Cell got a lot of attention, but I'm still giving this entertaining series a thumbs-up.

Weaknight showdown

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There is not much to look forward to as the first battle in the Crosstown Classic series starts at The Cell tonight. Last year, the White Sox were on a winning streak and an impressive month-long run that went on to fuel division title hopes until mid-September (the Cubs ended their streak at 11 games in the series finale). The Cubs, meanwhile, were already falling apart, well out of first, but still creating headlines with speculation about Lou Piniella's job and Carlos Zambrano's uncontrollable rage.

Perhaps it's fitting that Zambrano returns to the scene of the crime tonight in the series opener. Last year's tirade had many assuming Zambrano would be traded or let go, but instead he went off to anger management and became a new man, at least until he recently criticized Carlos Marmol, disrespected Mike Quade and apparently tried to conduct an interview during this past Saturday afternoon's game with Fox field reporter Ken Rosenthal. After the recent shenanigans, I think Z's about ready for another blowout.

So, perhaps the series is worth watching to see how far Zambrano walks down the plank. Other than that, the Sox beat a good Arizona team two out of three over the weekend. If they beat the Cubs two out of three or sweep, they'll have the chance to push over .500 this weekend. But, their inability to beat the Tigers and Twins recently has me less excited than I was last year about a possible mid-season run.

The Cubs beat a streaking Milwaukee team three out of four, but barely escaped a visit from the Yankees with a win in their pockets. The Cubs are providing some exciting moments, but nothing worth a long-term emotional investment.

The worst part about this year's crosstown series is that the Cup won't be there--the Stanley Cup, I mean. Unfortunately, that stupid BP Cup will be in attendance.

Ouch

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Ozzie Guillen had to go to the hospital in Arizona, and passed a kidney stone, but still plans to manage against the Diamondbacks today. Maybe he felt he had no choice but to man up after watching John Danks take a line drive off the head last night.

So, would you rather take a line drive off the back of your head or pass a kidney stone? Tough call. I guess it all depends on how the CT scan turns out.

Last night's White Sox-Twins game was postponed due to rain, which only gave me more time to worry about the prospect of facing the Piranhas on their home field--or really anywhere.

The Sox have been playing well the last few weeks, inching toward first place on consistently strong play from the likes of Carlos Quentin, Paul Konerko, Alexei Ramirez and Phil Humber, and slowly improving play from Alex Rios, Adam Dun and John Danks. They have started to look like a team destined to at least challenge Detroit for first place in the American League Central sometime before the All-Star Break.

The Twins have been out of sight and out of mind since they sullied U.S Cellular's sod with a no-hitter and a two-game sweep in early May. Actually, most of MLB had forgotten about the Twins, who had been having their worst year in many years until about the last dozen games. Now, wouldn't you know it, just as the Sox are getting their house in order, the Twins have been playing even better, going 9-2 in their last 11 games.

It wasn't so long ago that the experts had written off the Twins, but Sox fans know that you can never rule out a Minnesota rebound. In fact, as a Sox fan, I would not believe the Twins to be out of it until Game 1 of the World Series starts and finds Ron Gardenhire back home fishing. The Sox know they can play well themselves, but they always have to keep an eye out for Paul Bunyan coming their way, swinging his ax.

That's why they can't go into this series in Minnesota feeling like it's a 33-win team vs. a 26-win team. The Twins are still Public Enemy No. 1, and the Sox still can't really think about winning the division until they prove they can win against Minnesota.

Southbound and up

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Needless to say, it is much more fun to go to White Sox games these days than Cubs games. On some nights, you will even see more fans at The Cell than you would have for certain recent weekday games at Wrigley.

I was at The Cell last night for the second game of the Seattle series, and there was a nice turnout for a sweltering Tuesday night when most people would rather remain under cover of air conditioning. It was hard to hope for too much, with the Sox taking on Cy Young winner Felix Hernandez, but the offense jumped out early with homeruns by Paul Konerko and Carlos Quentin. Starter Phil Humber showed once again that the Sox were smart to save him from the srap heap by shutting down Seattle for a 5-1 win.

Last weekend's losses to Detroit were a letdown for the Sox after it had seemed like they were ready to break out. But, after taking the first two games from a very hot Mariners team, things are looking up again. With a 30-33 record, the Sox are six games in back of a Cleveland team that has definitely started to fade. If the season is going to come down to a duel with Detroit, they can't let the Tigers escape with another series win next time around.

I still think the best is it yet to come from the Sox. Both Adam Dunn and Alex Rios are still on life support, and assuming they get going soon, it could be the difference between three games under .500 or three games over. There is real concern in particular about Dunn, but it would be hard to believe that he is so washed up or so thoroughly unable to handle American League pitching that he will remain useless. Something's got to give soon.

Ozzie Guillen is starting to look like a genius for going to a six-man rotation (even if Jake Peavy's ongoing issues more often make it a five-man set). Humber has made the most of a slim chance he was given in spring training, and now he seems to be throwing even more confidently knowing that he's not just rotation filler. Meanwhile, John Danks finally got his first win and has looked strong in his last two games.

A month ago, you might have wondered if the Sox would see first place for the rest of the season. Now, it seems more like a matter of time.

If you haven't slammed the Cubs yet today, you are way behind. Carlos Zambrano did so yesterday, with comments that were 90% correct and refreshing to hear, and 10%--but a hard to overlook 10%--selfish and mean.

Today, Bob Brenly, in mostly agreeing with Zambrano's comments, called the Cubs a "dead-ass team." Again, it's an accurate call, though if it were Steve Stone talking, he would have been fired 30 seconds after he said that. It will be interesting to see what happens to Brenly. Maybe he can go over Jim Hendry's head to Tom Ricketts and convince the owner that Brenly himself would be a better manager than Mike Quade.

Zambrano, who continues to pitch almost better than he ever has, called out his team after another missed opportunity yesterday vs. the Cardinals. He was right to do it, but I suspect he was motivated more by his own annoyance at losing a W for his personal record than anything else. I have no way of knowing for sure, of course--I'm just making an assumption based on past poor behavior, and don't tell me there is a lack of that.

He also criticized the pitch choice of Carlos Marmol, who blew the save yesterday when Ryant Theriot (et tu, The-Riot?) doubled in the tying run. Zambrano morphed into Sparky Anderson, and said Marmol should have thrown a fastball instead of a slider because everyone apparently knows Theriot isn't a fastball hitter (though he seemed to do nicely with one earlier in the game on an opposite-field single).

I don't know about that. Maybe there's case for Zambrano's line of thinking. However, Marmol's best pitch is the slider, and he still had a ball to give away on a 2-2 count, which suggests one of his patented tailing-away sliders would be a good choice. Also, callng out your closer on a single pitch he threw is just bad form--would Zambrano like to hear the same from Marmol every time he walks a guy?

Marmol has blown two saves in a row, and I think's he's going through his typically mid-season swoon more than anything else. His real problem was letting a guy on base in the first place, a game he plays often, but usually wins.

What's forgotten amid all the criticism is that the Cubs almost took 2 of 3 from the division leaders. They got swept instead, which is not to be easily forgiven. If you are going to criticize anything, it should be the lackluster offensive effort. Hitters gave up both days and were swinging early and often.

I agree with Brenly that some players seem indifferent. In Zambrano's case, it might sounds like he cares too much, but to some extent, his comments--and his reaction following his recent bat-breaking incident--show that his main issue is his apparent disrespect for Quade.

If Quade has lost control of the team, now 11 games under .500, that is a problem, and Ricketts or Hendry should deal with it in some way. I would still be mosty against firing him unless Brenly or Bobby V. or the ghost of Leo Durocher has some kind of sure-fure instant fix in mind.

But, again the evidence is mounting for the Cubs to back up the truck early this year. Unload Zamrbrano while you can--he is playing great, and seems more likely than ever to agree to be traded. Send Aramis Ramirez packing, and maybe Alfonso Soriano, too, when he comes off the DL. I could see at least one top-tier majors-ready prospect coming in for each of them. If Hendry doesn't want to do that, then Ricketts should unload Hendry, too, and find a GM who is ready to begin rebuilding now rather than at the end of this year.

Recent success has taught Cubs fans to expect to win. It won't be happening much this year, so let's just see if more of these kids can play, and in the meantime get started on building a team, a management structure and an attitude that will bring us a competitive team next year.

I hate to be in the position of defending the Cubs... so I won't. They are 23-31 and just got swept in a three-game series by the team that up until then had the worst record in the league. Fans have ever reason to disown them for the rest of the season, and judging by attendance, many of them have,

Carlos Marmol, who had been solid the first two months of the season, imploded earlier this week, and I think it was the last straw for a lot of people. The Cubs are not looking anything like the .500 team we might have hoped for, with poor starting pitching, pourous defense and a major lack of power.

Yet, I still believe this season will finish far better than it looks right now. I don't like being in the position of being optimistic about the Cubs either (tried that in Game 6, NLCS 2003, and Games 1-3, NLDS 2008), but in a weird way, I think that this team could improve greatly if it simply abandons the possibility of being any good.

That means the signing of washed-up veteran pitchers must end. Doug Davis and Rodrigo Lopez are really no better than Casey Coleman, and at least you can say that Coleman is still gaining experience.

It means finding any possible way of trading at least two of the following: Aramis Ramirez, Alfonso Soriano, Kosuke Fukudome, Carlos Pena and Carlos Zambrano (Zambrano has been great, but is starting to show attitude again, and he doesn't play to Mike Quade's strength of managing younger, less volatile, ego-less players).

It means possibly trading players you might not want to part with, like Reed Johnson, Kerry Wood and maybe even Marmol (I know the last two may sound extreme and leave the bullpen barn door open, but Wood and Marmol might be the two most valuable trading pieces in that dealing them won't cost the Cubs a lot of extra money.

If there's a strong veteran presence you want to retain in the clubhouse, it's Marlon Byrd. Meanwhile,if you do at least a couple of these deals and get solid prospects in return, you change the mindset and the expectations to what they should have been at the beginning of this year: These are the new, young Cubs, and they have got nothing to lose (not to be confused with "Year One"). In baseball, when you realize you have nothing to lose, your chances are good to start winning.

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