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Judging Tony

Bobby Winkles, who managed the Angels and A's after winning three College World Series in the '60s with Arizona State, used to tell the story about Nolan Ryan when the Hall of Famer was pitching for the Angels.

Seems that Ryan was tiring in the late innings of a close game when Winkles went to the mound to make a change. Before handing the ball to his manager, Ryan said, "You mind if I ask you a question?"

"No, of course not," replied Winkles, who had great respect and admiration for one of the game's all-time greats, especially since he won 21 games for Winkles' club in 1973 while striking out 383 batters.

"Would you rather have a tired Nolan Ryan face the next hitter or that guy warming up in the bullpen?" deadpanned Ryan.

Winkles didn't hesitate. "You go get 'im," said the skipper, turning on his heel and heading back to the dugout.

That's what you call direct and effective communication, something that was missing last Tuesday between White Sox ace Lucas Giolito and his manager Tony La Russa.

Facing the last-place Detroit Tigers, Giolito had sailed through six innings with a 2-1 lead. Lucas had thrown 89 pitches; he had walked one hitter while striking out seven and yielding just three hits. In this era, that's a full evening's work.

Nevertheless, Giolito jogged to the mound for the seventh inning, which opened with an eight-pitch walk to Willi Castro, a .217 hitter at the time. In a tight game with a vaunted bullpen at his behest, one might have expected La Russa to call upon one of his hard-throwing relievers. But that didn't happen.

A flyball ensued before Wilson Ramos's double tied the game, followed by Niko Goodrum's home run to give the visitors a 4-2 bulge en route to a final 5-2 victory. Only then did Giolito depart.

According to Paul Sullivan's account in the Tribune, Giolito disclosed after the game that he "didn't have much left in the tank," to which La Russa replied, "Is that what he said?" Apparently the skipper thought Lucas had a few gallons remaining.

At the risk of focusing undue attention on the one loss to Detroit last week - the Sox swept the Tigers in two seven-inning games on Thursday after a rainout on Wednesday - La Russa received a barrage of criticism for staying with Giolito. Perhaps Sox followers and scribes haven't forgotten La Russa's faux pas the first week of the season when he summoned Matt Foster in relief of Dallas Keuchel in Seattle with the Sox holding a 4-1 lead in the sixth inning.

Required to face a minimum of three batters, Foster faced eight, retiring just one, before La Russa mercifully removed him. By then the Sox were losing 8-4. Adding to the daggers thrust La Russa's way, the Sox still held a 4-2 lead after Foster's three-batter minimum.

Robert Arthur, writing in Baseball Prospectus, claimed, "La Russa's error with Giolito highlights one of the ways the oldest manager in the majors has failed to adjust to the modern version of baseball," namely that starting pitchers simply don't pitch deep into games anymore. Arthur pointed out that Giolito threw a 91.5 mph fastball, one of his slowest this season, at the start of the seventh inning on Tuesday, indicating that fatigue had reared its ugly head.

La Russa's lineups also have been scrutinized on social media and elsewhere. In Thursday's first game of the doubleheader, he used Jake Lamb, Andrew Vaughn, Zack Collins, Billy Hamilton and Leury Garcia in the five-through-nine slots in the batting order. That quintet entered the game with a .193 composite batting average.

Nevertheless, despite garnering just four hits for the game, the bottom of the order accounted for the three Sox runs in the bottom of the fifth inning for a 3-1 victory. Garcia's bases loaded single with one out plated Vaughn and Collins to break a 1-1 tie, and Carlos Rodon (six innings) and closer Liam Hendriks limited Detroit to just two hits. Score one for the Sox skipper.

In the Sun-Times' Saturday Sports readers' poll, 62 percent of respondents replied "less" to the question of "A month into the season are you more or less confident in Tony La Russa than you were when the White Sox hired him?"

La Russa clearly has faced some momentous challenges in his return to the dugout, not the least of which is guiding his team toward the lofty expectations not only to win the Central Division but also to advance far into the post-season.

Aside from his strategical and personnel decisions, La Russa should either trash his COVID mask or at least cover his nose as well as his mouth, just like the protocol dictates. His schnazola has been sticking out prominently since Opening Day. In his defense, Cleveland manager Tito Francona displayed the same medical or sartorial, if you will, method during his weekend visit to The Grate. Both could benefit from a re-do.

La Russa also looks, well . . . old, in these post-game Zoom interviews. He appears tired and beaten even when the ballclub wins. A smile or a stab at humor, the funny variety, would help.

So now that we've pointed out a few of the items for fodder for La Russa's critics, there is more to the story.

As mentioned, despite the paltry lineup last Thursday, the Sox did win the game. Lamb, who bats from the left side, also appeared again in left field on Saturday against Cleveland righthander Triston McKenzie while Garcia, a switch hitter, sent Nick Madrigal to the bench with his .316 batting average.

With one out in the bottom of the fourth inning and the Sox leading 5-2, Yasmani Grandal and Lamb both walked. Despite it being relatively early in the game, La Russa pulled Lamb in favor of Hamilton to run at first base. Garcia came through again, lining a ball into the right field corner as Hamilton turned on the jets and scored from first, a feat that easily would have escaped the slow-footed Lamb. Tim Anderson and Adam Eaton followed with infield ground balls, so La Russa's maneuvering produced the runs which provided a nice cushion for what turned out to be a 7-3 Sox win.

In his own defense, La Russa explains that keeping his bench players "fresh" is the objective, an explanation failing to receive high marks from his detractors. I wonder if those fans recall the championship season of 2005 when Ozzie Guillen, citing the same rationale as La Russa, used Pablo Ozuna, Willie Harris, Timo Perez, Chris Widger and Jeff Blum liberally to rest his regulars while keeping the bench players involved. We all know how that turned out.

La Russa also has done a masterful job with Michael Kopech, who apparently is on an innings-limited schedule this season. La Russa has been clear that he spots Kopech both as an occasional starter and reliever. When he does pitch, Kopech has a relatively long leash, having logged two innings or more in six of his seven appearances, including three innings on Saturday in relief of winner Lance Lynn. Kopech allowed just one hit while fanning three.

Kopech has had at least three days off between appearances. In 18⅔ innings, the righthander has allowed just eight hits while striking out 30 and walking only four hitters. His ERA is 1.45 (and his FIP an even more sterling 1.24). Of course, Kopech deserves the lion's share of credit, but his manager has been able to sell his prized young hurler on plans for his role this season.

After a lackluster 5-0 loss on Sunday against Cleveland, compounded by Luis Robert's strained hip flexor sending him to the IL, the Sox stand at 15-12, a game worse than a season ago with Rickey Renteria at the helm. No doubt the club misses Eloy Jimenez, who after 27 games last season was hitting .295 with nine homers and 20 RBIs. Yermin Mercedes has taken up some of the slack, and La Russa's starting pitchers, with the addition of Lance Lynn and the resurgent Carlos Rodón, have performed far better than the group Renteria had a year ago.

Let's just say that the criticism aimed at La Russa has been overly severe while few can argue that La Russa is the same manager he was at Oakland and St. Louis. With 135 games remaining on the schedule, there still is plenty of time to see if TLR still has something left in the tank.

Final Note
Much of the consternation and concern about baseball these days centers on the fact that approximately one-third of plate appearances result in either a strikeout, walk or home run. If you observed the first three innings Saturday of the Sox victory over Cleveland, you got a huge dose of that exact dilemma.

Fourteen Sox hitters went to the plate, first against Triston McKenzie followed by Phil Maton. McKenzie struck out the side in order in the first inning as did Maton in the third. In the second frame, McKenzie again struck out the side. However, he also walked four hitters and gave up a grand slam home run to Tim Anderson.

Summary: 14 batters, nine strikeouts, four walks, and one home run. And that, my fellow fans, is why we can be thankful the White Sox were the batters and not the pitchers.

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

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