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There may only be disappointment in Chicago today, as the Bulls' NBA Championship dreams were stopped cold by the Miami Heat. This latest letdown comes not long after the Blackhawks failed to make it past the first stage of the playoffs, and both our baseball teams have more or less limped through the first couple months of their seasons.

Yet, there may be reason to be happy in Mudville. I will gloss the two most disappoint baseball players in town right now (Adam Dunn and Aramis Ramirez) and cut to the top 10 reasons why we should feel good about baseball in Chicago right now:

1) Neither team is really out of contention: The White Sox are 8.5 games back and in third place, while the Cubs are in fifth, but only 6.5 games back.

2) The Cubs can score: Sure, they have been unable to solve Kevin Correia and the Pittsburgh Pirates yet again, but for the most part they string together hits like crazy for a team now running mostly on youth and whose best power hitter (A-Ram) is once again powerless. Even Carlos Pena is hitting better than last year, though not by much.

3) The Sox can pitch: The bullpen woes of April are mostly a thing of the past, and the starters, most surprisingly Phil Humber and this new call-up Jake Peavy, are delivering. Even the winless John Danks pitched great last time out.

4) Tony Campana and Reed Johnson: Their bats will definitely cool off, but the dirty uniform club sure is fun to watch right now. Campana seems like a threat to beat out any grounder, and Johnson knows his core audience sits right behind him.

5) Carlos Quentin, Alex Rios, Alexei Ramirez: The Sox quiet bats have ruined many a game for them, but these three in particular have each had stellar individual performances in the last week or so, with CQ's 3-HR game being the highlight. One of these games, they're all going to click on the same night and the Sox will score about 17 runs.

6) Jeff Samardzija: I can't believe I just wrote that, but the guy has been delivering out of the bullpen. I guess we'll have to put up with the hair.

7) Sergio Santos: For a guy who wasn't supposed to be the closer, he is doing everything he can to keep things locked down in the 9th inning.

8) Darwin Barney: Get that RoY award ready. With the exception of a few dumb errors, he has been terrific at the plate and in the field. He and Starlin Castro have gotten the Daily Double tag for this year. Is it too early to say Barney is Scottie Pippen to Castro's MJ? Probably...

9) Ozzie Guillen: He has survived what now looks like a brief stretch of very ugly play by the Sox, and has stayed out of trouble himself. What more can you ask?

10) The weather: It can't get any worse, right? C'mon summer! We're pullin' for ya!


Sure, we would rather have the White Sox about to start playing another World Series than be celebrating the 5th anniversary of their last victorious trip. But, it was hard not to feel all warm and fuzzy inside today reading about the final key moments leading up to the 2005 title, as well as the two 2005 Sox making it back to the World Series this year--Aaron Rowand and Juan Uribe.

You could have made a pretty good case for Uribe as the NLCS MVP (the honor went to Cody Ross). He had the game winning RBI in the last two NLCS wins by the San Francisco Giants, and made several great defensive plays throughout the series. It was a reminder of how he almost single-handedly shut down the Houston Astros the the final inning of the 2005 championship with a crowd-surfing foul-pop catch and a hustling charge-and-throw on a grounder for the last out.

Rowand also had at least one signature moment this year, coming in Game 4 when he threw a man out at the plate to keep the score tied in a game the Giants eventually won on Uribe's sac fly. You have to believe that his character and personailty, much loved by Sox fans, helped fuse these Giants into a World Series contender.

Since 2005, I thought the Sox had realistic chances to head back to the postseason almost every year including this one. Alas, they have only made it once. In some ways, it seems like barely yesterday that they won it all. At least we have our not-too-distant memories to keep us warm this winter.


Watching the play-offs

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Well, even though the Cubs and White Sox didn't come close this year, we still have a postseason worth watching, and some former Chicago players are making contributions.

It was nice to see Jose Contreras, key member of the 2005 World Champion White Sox, come out for the Phillies last night and hold down the fort to get the win. And it was just plain sad to see star-crossed Dusty Baker watching his own team become suddenly error-prone and give up a 4-0 lead with just a handful of outs left. It wasn't quite deja vu, but close enough.

In San Francisco, look who's overcome his penchant for late-inning implosions--the Farns. Kyle Farnsworth, now with Atlanta, got the win last night by pitching 1.2 not-perfect-but-good-enough innings. I was certain after the Giants blew the lead that the reliable Farns would provide them with a storybook comeback in the 11th inning, but he did the job for the Braves, who really had few options but to leave him in the game. Derrek Lee was 2-for-5 with two key runs scored.

And, of course, both Sox fans and Cubs fans are watching the Twins-Yankees series with interest. So far, Sox fans are getting exactly what they had hoped, with the Twins down to their last chance and unable to spook the Yankees the way the do the Sox. With every Yankees victory, however, Cubs fans may be forced to wait a little longer to find out who will be the next manager. Joe Girardi's postseason poise is something to make Cubs fans salivate, but I think the further the Yankess go, the less likely he'll figure in GM Jim Hendry's decision.

Finally, who isn't rooting for Kerry Wood? He has pitched a scoreless 1.2 innings this week as the Yankees set-up man. From heroic rookie pitcher to injured mess and 2003 NLCS Game 7 loser to even more injured mess to effective, but unwanted Cubs closer to Cleveland and finally to the Yankees, who seem to have figured him out. Here's hoping that one last Cubbie occurrence isn't lying in wait for the former Cub.

Former Sox Nick Swisher also plays for the Yankess, but let's not even go there...

 

 


For starters, Sox are finished

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The White Sox disappeared from the A.L. Central race so shockingly quickly that it is still hard to believe. But, the proof that it's over came last night with another Sox loss and another Twins win.

Like Ozzie, we can give the Twins a lot of credit for being almost unbeatable since the All-Star Break. However, you can't deny that the Sox had the potential to win the division themselves and just didn't play up to that potential. Sporadic hitting all year and a collapsed bullpen can take some of the blame, but I think the biggest disappointment was the starting pitching. Sox starters haven't won a game in more than two weeks.

Even after Jake Peavy was injured, the starting rotation still looked like the best in the division, if not one of the best in the league. After the addition and turnaround of Edwin Jackson, it seemed poised for big things. But, all month, starters have been getting bombed, and not just against the Twins.

It's been an uncharacteristic implosion for a Don Cooper-led staff. Freddy Garcia was great at the start of the year, and you had to figure he would come down, but Mark Buehrle, John Danks and Gavin Floyd have spent this month giving games away, sometimes in spite of offensive outputs that seemed to lock in wins. Jackson, meanwhile, seems to have reacquired some of his old bad habits.

When you look at what went wrong for the Sox this year, and why they didn't get the division crown, start with the part of the team that was supposed to get them that crown.


Skinny Bobby

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A week ago after the Cubs Convention, we were talking about the newly-slimmed Geovany Soto. At SoxFest over the weekend, the Seattle Sutton award went to Bobby Jenks, who in photos and reportedly in person, appeared to have lost quite a bit of weight (I haven't found a story yet in which he said how much he lost, though some blogs have mentioned the magic number as 30 pounds).

Several stories during the weekend talked about Jenks having gained maturity and a new willingness to carry on direct conversation with the media. The Melissa Isaacson story I linked to above mentions that he quit drinking and has gotten some religion. To each his own in both departments, but after hearing all of this news, I feel less like Jenks will be the big question mark for the Sox this season (I may move that question mark over to Alex Rios or the team's general lack of power).

I feel generally pretty good about the mostly modest changes that the Sox made during the off-season. I might feel even better is they pull the trigger and re-sign Jim Thome to a limited DH role, though I'm not expecting that to happen. But, in any case, the pitching staff is looking solid from top to bottom, and the speed-plus-defense game-plan looks ready to go. I'm liking the 2010 White Sox better every day.

Fade to black out

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The Sox started ALDS Game 2 against the Rays in encouraging fashion. After the 1st inning ended, I felt the same way I did after the top of the 3rd in Game 1--which should have been my first warning. The Sox had a 2-0 lead after the 1st, they had hit well, moved runners and used plate patience, making young Scott Kazmir throw something like 40 pitches. They left the bases loaded, but it seemed like a sign of good things to come. In the bottom half of the first Buehrle looked like his usual self, working fast and not wasting pitches.

But, the Rays fought back, and even though the Sox kept putting guys on base--in every inning but one, and they had two men on bases in three separate innings--they couldn't grind out another run against Kazmir, or Balfour, or J.P. Howell or even more interesting-than-good submariner Chad Bradford. Balfour and Howell in particular were nasty in getting out of jams, and made me wonder if the Rays have some kind of training program that encourages their pitchers to jabber to themselves on the mound--in any case, it seems to work. Sox hitters argued some called strikes, but honestly, they just seemed fooled by some good breaking pitches.

Buehrle toughed it out, minimizing a 2nd inning attack by the Rays by closing out the inning with a double play and yielding only one run. Later though, he gave up a 2-run, opposite-field HR to lefty Akinori Iwamura (nice to at least someone from Japan doing well in the postseason). It was almost more a nice piece of hitting by Iwamura than it was a real mistake by Buehrle.

The Rays broke it open in the 8th, with Buehrle still in and under 100 pitches, but getting ineffective. I know Ozzie wanted to wait until the last possible moment to go to the pen, but in this instance, Buehrle quickly gave up a triple and a single to score a run. Dotel and Thornton couldn't stop the bleeding before the Rays worked up the eventual final score, 6-2.

So, the Sox are now down 0-2 and headed back to The Cell. After failing to steal Game 1, and missing a pretty good chance to take Game 2, it will be Danks vs. Matt Garza in Game 3 tomorrow. Garza is talented, but can be had when he's not pitching in the dome. I don't know how often Sox fans want to resort to the black out (is it the next Rally Monkey?), but in any case, tomorrow's big game would be a great time for some Southside energy.

Fight back against despair

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The Cubs blew Game 1 of the NLDS, losing to the Dodgers 7-2 at Wrigley, which by the accounts of some who were there, was as somber as a tomb from the moment the gates opened. Not that the Cubs and their fans look to the Southside for lessons on anything, but the fan-unifying "black out" at The Cell earlier in the week showed how a team and their fans can forget the past and throw themselves into the moment at hand. The Sox stumbled their way to Game 163, but the entire park was nothing but focused energy and excitement.

It's the players, of course, who carry the responsibility to win, energy or not, and Ryan Dempster looked completely uncomfortable in a park where he won 14 games this year. His supposed cold-weather throwing regimen during the 0ff-season seemed to prepare him well for the chilly October night at Wrigley, but he was wild from the start. Seven walks in five innings will doom any pitcher in any game, but issuing two of those walks to the opposing pitcher is an urgent cry for help, a cry that was not heard urgently enough in the dugout. Lou and Larry seemed to want to give Demp the benefit of the doubt, but as some columnists have pointed out this morning, why wait for your starter to find himself in a play-off game when you have other would-be starters sitting in the bullpen? On a cold night, it would not have been a bad idea anyway to get a couple guys up a bit earlier than usual to warm up. True, it's only Game 1, but is is the freakin' play-offs.

Dempster has proven adept all year at getting himself out of jams and avoiding the big inning. his two moments of collapse this year occurred at The Cell, and more recently when he fed Albert Pujols a three-run HR down in St. Louis. But this time, with the bases loaded, Demp hung one right in front of James Loney, an extremely good, but fairly unheralded contact hitter. I would say Demp committed the sin of going of the middle of the plate with a 1-2 count, but it looked like he meant to drop something in front of Loney to either get him fishing or ground into a force play. But, he didn't have the command last night to make it happen--something which was obvious to a lot of us at least a few batters earlier.

The Cubs had their chances on offense to right the ship, of course. They got a wind-blown homer from De-Ro and actually out-hit the Dodgers. Here's perhaps the most amazing fact from last night's game: The Cubs had players reach base in every inning of the game. This one was really a missed opportunity in every respect.

But, getting back to the fan behavior, erasing the collective memory of Cub fandom is not an option. When one thing goes wrong, most Cubs fans are bound to fear the worst. I know my stomach was churning even before the fateful 5th inning, when Demp loaded the bases in the 3rd with Cub-killer Andre Ethier at the plate. But, for lack of a better phrase, we need to find out nuts. We need to bring as much energy and excitement to the task as we expect our teams to bring, even when they let us down a little. I'm not saying cheer mistakes, but at least boo them vigorously for a limited moment and get onto to the next thing. And even when the Cubs are behind, make your voice heard during every Cub at-bat and every big pitch. I'm not an advocate of standing early in games our in favorable pitching counts when there are less than two outs, but there's nothing wrong with using your outside voice a little more. That's what seemed to be happening at Wrigley late in the regular season even when the Cubs were behind, but it seemed absent last night. Lord knows, it may add to the pressure for some and there's more pressure on the Cubs than most, but the pressure is there and the only thing to do is focus and play through it.

Game 2 starts tonight at the chilly hour of 8:37 p.m. The Cubs send Zammy against young strikeout-artist Chad Billingsley, but where last night's L.A. pitcher Derek Lowe is postseason-seasoned and tough to hit, young Chad can be had when he doesn't over-power. If he strikes out a few guys early, the Cubs should be able to learn something for later in the game. So, don't panic. And, someone remind Zammy that even though the situation calls for heroes, actually actually trying to be a hero usually doesn't get him very far. Don't you knda wish Lilly was starting tonight?

Meanwhile, the Sox go early down in Florida, and I like their chance in Game 1, coming off of the energy in Game 163 against a young team that has been sitting around waiting for them. Game on.

Game 163 and counting

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Alexei Ramirez became the first rookie to hit four grand slams in a single season, pushing the White Sox to a 8-2 victory in their make-up game against the Tigers, and forcing a play-in game against the Piranhas. It may seem unfair to the Piranhas that this game will be at The Cell--the site decided by a coin toss, rather than by who led the season series--but they had their chances to win the division earlier. So did the Sox, of course, but all that is in the past now. As the Great and Powerful Oz said, "162 games mean nothing." Well, we wouldn't go quite that far.

Back to The Missile: He still makes baby mistakes sometimes, but has come very far in just one season, and deserves to win Rookie of the Year. He has already proven himself such a clutch player that the grand slam seemed almost destined to happen. As he stood in and The Cell rocked, it seemed like all he needed was the pitch.

I went nuts when it happened, and with the window open on a cool, wet day, I could hear three or four other guys in my neighborhood doing the same. My favorite sign in the crowd, shown moments after the big hit: "Just like we planned it."

After I texted my Sox fan friend The Commish in my excitement, his response brought me back to cold reality: "But can the pen hold it?" True, with three innings left, it would be a big job for a bullpen running on fumes, but they managed, and tonight, The Cell hosts Game 163. Let's hope they copy the route the Rockies took last year from a play-in game to the World Series.

It's Danks vs. Blackburn. Danks was not good the last time out and has had little luck with the Piranhas, but I like a lefty power pitcher against the Piranhas line-up. The Sox offense has its edge back and, with everyone attending urged to wear black, they will have a park full of raucous fans, a park, which for better or worse, will be open to the elements rather than sealed under a dome on a very cool final night of September.

A new beginning

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Who had a good feeling about last night's Cubs/Reds pitching match-up? That's right, you heard it here first that Marquis would have a strong outing and lead the Cubs out of their 6-game losing streak. OK, maybe Soriano's 3-HR performance had something to do with it, too. Marquis kept the game in hand despite an bases-loaded walk on a questionalble call that looked like it would get him tossed early.

The Cubs offense--AlSo, DeRo, D-Lee and the rest--scored in every inning after the 2nd, but in the end, the bullpen did a lot to make this one a more painful experience for some fans than the 14-9 final would indicate. Mrs. SBW and I were heading back from dinner and listening to the radio when the Cubs were ahead 11-1, and I made fun of Ronny for feeling nervous about the 10-run lead. Then, the Reds scored 4 runs in the 8th, and by the time D-Lee was up in the 9th with the bases loaded, the Mrs. was screaming at the radio demanding more runs. Again, I had to laugh with the Cubs still up 11-5 at the time, but Lee and then Mighty Mite together drove in 3 runs to make it 14-5, I felt good with Wuertz on the mound to start the 9th, giving Marmol a rest with a 9-run lead, but Wuertz loaded the bases and Marmol came in looking like someone woken up in the middle of the night. He promptly gave up a grand slam to Jolbert Cabrera (Who?), but then came to his senses.

Hopefully, the Cubs are back to their winning ways, though their tough road to October gets tougher later this week.

I hate giving the White Sox second billing today because their 7-6 15-inning victory was a hugely significant game (while we were in the car with the Reds scoring runs late against the Cubs, I was switching from 720 AM to 670 AM frequently to track both games.)

Not long after we got home and the Cubs had sealed their victory, Thome obliterated an 0-1 pitch for career HR No. 537 and a White Sox winner, a turn of events which I called from my own couch just before it happened (my dog is a witness). I couldn't tell whether Thome's smash landed on the right field consourse or not, but yes, it went that far. Jenks had given the Angels a 6-5 lead in the 9th after the Sox had tied the score in the 7th an a 2-run HR by Dirty 30. But, the Sox tied it off K-Rod in the bottom of the 9th, thereby keeping Thiggy's 57-save record safe a little longer (K-Rod has 54 saves and certainly will break the record, though he has been off lately.)

The Sox blew a great chance to win the the 10th, wasting a man on 3rd with no outs situation. A.J. again showed poor base-running choices in getting caught off 3rd base for the second out of the inning (Doug Eddings wasn't around to save him this time.) A.J. wasn't replaced with a pinch-runner presumably because Ozzie used both Wise and Owens as PRs in the 9th (Owens getting himself thrown out at 2nd after doing a delayed tag-up from 1st base on the sac fly that scored the tying run.)

Despite the base-running gaffes, the bullpen was in lock-down mode. Even Jenks pitch a strong 10th after his bad 9th. But, Matt Thornton was more impressive, pitching 2-2/3 scoreless innings and Ehren Wasserman got the Sox out of a 14th inning jam--and got the win--by de-clawing the aging but still dangerous Vlad Guerrero.

The Piranhas lost, so the Sox are 2-1/2 games up in 1st place. They have already won the series against the postseason-ready Angels, and go for the sweep today. Both of our teams suddenly look fresh with new beginnings.

We're going streaking!

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Yes, the Cubs are still losing, this time finding a way to lose before the game was half over, getting pounded by the Lowly Reds 10-2. This one looked like a bad match-up from the start with Lilly going to the mound (he's now 0-4 with an 8.15 ERA against Cinci this season after getting tagged with 5 runs in 2 IP Friday night.)

No offense again. The Cubs are hitting so little that Koyie Hill, the catcher now know more for his mangled hand than anything else, drove in both runs (though the second only scored because uber-rookie Jay Bruce, who earlier in the game hit a grand slam, bobbled the ball, so no RBI). much was made of Piniella and Sinatro getting lost on the drive to Cincinnati from Chicago, just the kind of thing you might think would lighten up the mood and loosen up the team a little, but it only served as ample metaphor for how the Cubs are losing their way.

Tonight, Marquis goes against Cueto, which most nights would otherwise be described as a match-up of a middling, inconsistent veteran and an incredibly talented rookie, but for some reason, I'm feeling good about this game. Marquis looked strong last time out, and Cueto is coming off a sore elbow. The Cubs have to win sometime...

And now, for a much more enjoyable analysis of a 10-2 game: The White Sox didn't let a possible season-ending injury to their best hitter bring them down as they opened a weekend series against the play-off-bound Angels. CQ was out for the first of many games, but Junior had 2 RBI, Uribe tapped his occasional power streak for a pair of 2-run HRs and Paulie hit another round-tripper as he gradually works his way back to normal. Buehrle was unscored-upon for 6 IP with an uncharacteristic 7 Ks. And, Linebrink is back and looked pretty good.

CQ has been getting criticism for breaking his wrist against his bat as he was punishing himself for missing a pitch against Clieff Lee in Cleveland. Don't get on him too much though, for a freak injury. I have seen other players, such as Zambrano and Geo on the Northside, break bats after poor at-bats, which is much more dangerous and unnecessary. You see some guys get so upset, you wonder how they can keep their focus the rest of the game. CQ was doing something anyone with a competitive streak would do in the same situation, and which he noted he has cone many times over the years. Unfortunately, fate took over.

Meanwhile, Uribe, for all his expendability earlier this season, has proven to be a key part of this club yet again, particularly with Joe "My achin' back" Crede now done for the season, according to the Great and Powerful Oz. The Sox won big, and have tougher match-ups the next two games, but a little of the swagger that the Cubs lost recently has re-emerged on the Southside.

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