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May 2012 Archives

Cheap sweep

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Any thoughts that a sweep of the Cubs proved how good the White Sox are should be put back into perspective by Tuesday night's 9-2 thumping by the Twins. This is not a good Twins team. It is one of the worst in recent memory.

The Sox, 21-21 going into Tuesday's game, have been getting some good power in recent games, off the bats of Adam Dunn, Dayan Viciedo and Gordon Beckham in particular. That's nice to see, but the Sox are now entering a tough stretch that should answer the questions about what kind of .500 team they really are--the kind that is a little streak away from being a winning team, or the kind that has used beatings of worse teams to puff up its record.

The Sox sweep at Wrigley may have proved more about exactly how bad the Cubs really are than how good the Sox are. With Bryan LaHair coming back down to earth a bit, the Cubs offense has been limited of late to the occasional Alfonso Soriano homer and a handful of runs so late in blowouts that the other team's closer wasn't being used.

The Cubs were 15-27 going into Tuesday's game at Houston, look like what they are--they worst team in the majors by number of losses. It's not only the offense, as the starting pitching has not been nearly as brilliant as it was in April. If anything, the bullpen, which let the Cubs down so often in April, has been better in recent games.

However, the lost weekend against the crosstown rival may have left the Cubs in too deep of a hole to come out of, even though they are actually only about eight games out of first place. Suddenly, the fans want Anthony Rizzo called up, something the Cubs said they weren't in a hurry to do.

I don't see a dire need to call up Rizzo now. to do so would suggest he can fix everything that''s wrong with the Cubs. I'm definitely in favor of bringing him up later in the season, but he's still young enough that the minors are where he should be. He may be tearing up the minors, but that's exactly what he's supposed to be doing.

As we head into Memorial Day weekend, I'm not feeling great about either of our teams. It will be interesting to see which one has brighter prospects when the next crosstown series rolls around next month. The Sox should still have the better record, but I have to wonder if both teams will be settled well below .500 by then.

Don't got Wood

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Some moments are bigger than the game. Whether or not they should be depends on your perspective, and it is difficult for most Cubs fans to consider anything Kerry Wood does with a balanced perspective. 

In announcing his retirement yesterday, Wood upstaged the game--a Crosstown Classic at that--and the Cubs assured that he could go out the way he wanted, facing one last batter in a close game, and getting a tender in-game farewell from fans and players alike

Since his 20-strikeout game on May 6, 1998, it has been impossible for a lot of us to view Wood as you would any other pitcher who has been on the disabled list 16 times in 14 years and who hasn't even spent his entire career with the Cubs. 

Wood had one truly great game and a handful of very good ones, but the promise of miracle talent flashed at age 20 created a legend that wouldn't fade, and when he set himself apart from other players by being an all-around nice guy and generous tipper, it only enhanced the warm feelings people have had for him. The injuries gave him the star-crossed quality of someone who can never really fail in the eyes of fans because he never really gets the chance.

Of course, what many fans forget is that Wood did get that chance. If he had won the biggest game of his life--Game 7 of the 2003 NLDS--the 20-strikeout game, the 1998 Rookie of the Year award and some other good performances might have been only chapter headings in a bigger and broader legend. You certainly can't heap all the blame for that year's postseason implosion on him, but that loss is something a lot of fans are likely to ignore when they think about Wood.

I can't really think of an over-hyped player getting the farewell from the game that Wood got yesterday, but I guess it was in the cards when the Cubs re-signed Wood last winter. I thought when he returned for the 2011 season, it was a decent signing of a fan favorite who had a bit of talent left and probably would retire at the end of the year. When Theo & Co. seemed committed to re-building, I thought Wood would take the hint and announce his retirement, but instead he forced the team to make a PR decision and sign him to a cheap deal. It's the only time new management has blinked so far.

I don't really fault Wood for dictating his own public exit in the middle of a game--I think he wanted it for the fans more than for himself because he has probably been a fan of the legend, too. But it was emblematic of everything else about Wood's whole story--kind of out-sized and disconnected from reality, the kind of moment fans celebrate because, like Wood, they have no idea what it's like to win the biggest game of their lives.

Blame game

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Carlos Marmol had a horrible April that extended into May before he lost his closer job last week. If you ask most fans, they would probably say he is the main reason the Cubs went 8-15 in April, and stood at 10-17 going into Sunday's game.

It is hard to argue that point of view. If Marmol had been perfect in every appearance, the Cubs would have finished April 12-11 and would have been 15-12 going into Sunday. Not great, but a winning team.

I wouldn't stick my neck out too far to defend Marmol, but he shouldn't get all the blame for the bad start that all of us were expecting from the Cubs. His blown saves and bad appearances have had the ironic effect of making the Cubs look like contenders in an "if only..." sort of way.

The Cubs are not so good that a few saves would make all the difference. I'm not saying they can't become contenders, even this year. But, they have had more problems than Marmol can take the blame for. The bullpen has been scattershot, with James Russell and Scott Maine the two most consistent relievers--and Maine had to be sent down to make room for guys who were out of options. Kerry Wood has been particularly ineffective and typically absent. 

The offense has little power and scored five or more runs in only seven of 27 games going into Sunday. There have been some great moments of two-out hitting and innings where the Cubs effectively string together singles to score runs, but more often they look a lot like the Cubs offense of last year. The defense also at times has looked as porous as it was last year.

The best thing about the Cubs obviously has been the starting rotation, even though they have yet to get a win out of Chris Volstad. The starters are keeping games tight into the late innings, which is the mark of a winner in the making. Also, since Marlon Byrd was shipped out, and Tony Campana came back up the whole line-up has seemed more aggressive on the bases.

There is reason to hope the Cubs can bounce back from a bad April, but it will take more than faith in Russell and Rafael Dolis as replacements for Marmol, just as it was not only Marmol's fault that the Cubs sputtered out of the gate.

Not the cruelest month

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Here are a few White Sox highlights from the first month of the season:

-Phil Humber pitched a perfect game.
-Jake Peavy pitched two complete games and went 3-1 with a 1.67 ERA. He pitched well enough to go 5-0 for the month.
-Adam Dunn had five homeruns and 16 RBI.
-Alex Rios hit .311 for the month.
-A.J. Pierzynski had four homeruns, 17 RBI and hit .309 for the month.
-The Sox won a series against division-favorite (and World Series-favorite, according to most people) Detroit.

Given our uncertainty before the season started, how could we possibly ask for more? Several players we were worried about being a liabilities have responded. If you didn't know better, you would say the highlights above belonged to a first-place, 18-4 team.

As it stands, the Sox spent a day or two in first place during April, and were running a close second as the month ended. Their record for April was a bland (like Robin Ventura) 11-11. Again, any of us would have been glad to be handed that first-month fate on Opening Day. But, the highlights suggest greater potential.

The Sox have two main problems right now. One is a disjointed, inconsistent offensive effort that has kept them out of a few winnable low-scoring games featuring masterful efforts by their starting rotation. The other is a shaky closer. Hector Santiago gave up as many homeruns in a month--four in just 7.1 innings--as some great closers give up in a season.

The offensive inconsistency could be traced in part to the handful of player who didn't get the memo about starting the season in strong fashion, though even some of these dreary performances come with a slight upside:

-Gordon Beckham is playing his customary role hitting below .200, though he showed signs of life in the foggy first game of May against Cleveland last night.
-Brent Morel, who had a great sprint training stretch, opened horribly, hitting below .200. He had just 13 hits in April, though he managed to score 11 runs and did have eight hits in his last eight games of the month.
-Brent Lillibridge has not been the super-sub he was last season, though he does lead the team with six stolen bases.
-Dayan Viciedo is hitting just .211, though he has flashed a little bit of power with three homeruns.
-Alexei Ramirez is hitting .207. There not really an upside here, except we know he always starts slowly.

The closer situation, while annoying, is not completely dire because the Sox have a lot of options. Yes, this is exactly what I said last season before every single option dissolved before our eyes, but it's new season right?

All of this makes me believe the Sox could finish May with a slight winning record.

Baby steps.

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