Thursday, April 28, 2016

Jose Quintana continues mastery of Blue Jays

Jose Quintana is 3-1 this season.
Something was going to give Wednesday night. The Toronto Blue Jays hadn't been swept at Rogers Centre since Sept. 10-12, 2013. And White Sox starting pitcher Jose Quintana was 3-0 in three previous starts in Toronto.

As it turns out, Quintana continued his streak, and the Blue Jays' long run of not being swept at home has come to an end.

The Sox left-hander fired six shutout innings in a 4-0 win. Quintana (3-1) struck out a season-high 10 and stranded a Toronto baserunner in scoring position in four of his six innings. He is now 4-0 with 0.68 ERA in four career starts at Toronto. His season ERA is 1.47 -- fourth-best in the AL -- and he has yet to allow a home run in 30.2 innings this season.

Zach Duke, Nate Jones and David Robertson all pitched a scoreless inning to finish the shutout.

Toronto starter Marco Estrada matched zeroes with Quintana through six innings, but the Sox once again broke through in their favorite inning -- the seventh. Dioner Navarro's two-out, two-strike, two-run triple put the Sox ahead and ended Estrada's night. Austin Jackson greeted reliever Jesse Chavez with an RBI triple to complete the three-run rally.

Avisail Garcia's RBI single in the eighth inning tacked on an insurance run as the Sox won their sixth straight and improved to 16-6.

Comings and goings

A few roster moves over the past couple days:
  • Catcher Kevan Smith was placed on the disabled list with a back problem before appearing in a game. The Sox purchased the contract of Hector Sanchez from Triple-A Charlotte. I wouldn't be surprised if Sanchez gets a start Thursday with John Danks on the mound against Baltimore
  • Pitcher Miguel Gonzalez was optioned back to Triple-A Charlotte, and relief pitcher Daniel Webb was recalled.
  • On a sad note, Robertson had a death in his family, and the closer has been placed on the bereavement list, meaning he will be away from the team for 3 to 7 days. Infielder Carlos Sanchez has been recalled to fill that roster spot. Sanchez was off to a good start at Triple-A Charlotte, with a slash line of .309/.356/.469 with three home runs and six stolen bases in 20 games. With Webb being on the roster, the Sox still have seven relievers available for the Baltimore series.

Wednesday, April 27, 2016

Efficient Chris Sale carves up hard-hitting Blue Jays

Chris Sale is 5-0.
ESPN senior writer David Schoenfield made a bold prediction Wednesday. He foresees White Sox ace Chris Sale winning the AL Cy Young Award in 2016.

Of course, it's only April, and it's way too early to draw grand conclusions about any team or any player just 21 games into a 162-game schedule. But Sale (5-0) has won each of his first five starts and has more wins than the Atlanta Braves, who enter Wednesday's play with a 4-16 record.

Sale latest victory was a 10-1 masterpiece against the Toronto Blue Jays on Tuesday. The left-hander went eight innings, allowing a run on four hits while striking out six and walking two. His ERA is down to 1.66, and his WHIP is just 0.68.

Most impressively, Sale needed only 100 pitches to get through eight innings against a hard-hitting Toronto lineup that led all of baseball with 891 runs scored last season.

That pitch efficiency is not a fluke, either. Sale has yet to reach 110 pitches in any of his five starts, but he has gone at least seven innings in all of them. Sale's strikeout rate has dipped from 32.1 percent in 2015 to 23.2 percent this year, but opposing batters are hitting just .186 on balls put in play. Anyone who watched Wednesday's game saw the Blue Jays hit an array of lazy fly balls and infield popups that landed harmlessly in the gloves of Sox fielders.

Sure, Sale set the team strikeout record last season with 274, and that was awesome, but he wasn't nearly this efficient. He had 15 starts last season with 110 pitches or more. He's won five games this year without needing to do that. He's getting quicker outs and getting deeper into games, and obviously, the more innings Sale throws, the better things are likely to be for the Sox.

A rough second half last season might have been the best thing for Sale's career. He had an un-Sale-like ERA of 4.33 after the All-Star break in 2015. Moreover, his September numbers were terrible. He gave up 45 hits, including eight home runs, in 37 September innings.

As Schoenfield notes, six of the eight home runs Sale allowed in September came off fastballs, and batters hit  .363/.407/.638 against his fastball for the month.

Basically, Sale was trying to throw his heater by everybody as he chased that strikeout record in September, and hitters were ready for it. This offseason, it was clear Sale needed to make an adjustment to take the next step. Now, he's not throwing as hard as he has in the past -- the 97 mph heat is still there when he needs it -- but he's adding and subtracting off his fastball and mixing in his outstanding slider and good changeup effectively. Even good hitters such as those in the Toronto lineup are having their timing totally disrupted.

The high strikeout totals probably won't come as often for Sale if he sticks with this game plan, but the wins will come. At the end of last year, Sale was a thrower instead of a pitcher. He's back to being a pitcher now, and he's performing as well as he ever has in his career.

Tuesday, April 26, 2016

The Miguel Gonzalez gamble fails; White Sox offense rallies

Former Sox pitcher Gavin Floyd gave up Toronto's lead Monday.
Miguel Gonzalez did not distinguish himself Monday in his first start in a White Sox uniform. His fastball velocity was decent enough -- 90-91 mph -- but his command was not precise.

And a pitcher without overwhelming stuff can't afford to be imprecise against the powerful Toronto batting order.

The Blue Jays No. 2 through No. 6 hitters -- Josh Donaldson, Jose Bautista, Edwin Encarnacion, Troy Tulowitzki and Michael Saunders -- went a combined 7 for 13 with a home run, three doubles and five runs scored against Gonzalez.

Gonzalez lasted 5.1 innings, allowing five runs on 11 hits. He struck out six and walked two. The Sox trailed 5-1 after six innings, and the Blue Jays had their ace, Marcus Stroman, on the mound.

Game over, right?

Well, maybe it would have been over last year. Not this year. The Sox rallied for five runs in the seventh inning, all after two were out, and ended up beating Toronto, 7-5. It was probably the most satisfying win of the Sox's 14-6 start. 

Stroman left with the bases loaded and two outs in the seventh inning, still leading 5-1. But Toronto lefty Brett Cecil could not get anybody out. Adam Eaton singled up the middle on a 1-2 pitch to drive in two runs and bring the Sox within 5-3. Jimmy Rollins followed with an RBI single to make it 5-4, and then the Blue Jays tried to coax Jose Abreu to get himself out by swinging at bad pitches.

Abreu is in a terrible slump. He has been swinging at sliders in the dirt routinely as of late, but this time he laid off Cecil's low breaking pitches and took a walk to reload the bases.

The Blue Jays then summoned former Sox right-hander Gavin Floyd to face Todd Frazier. I have to say, Toronto is unlikely to defend its AL East title this year if it doesn't have anybody better than Floyd to bring in with the bases loaded, two outs and a one-run lead in the seventh inning.

Frazier got a 0-1 cut fastball and lined it down the left-field line for a two-run double that put the Sox ahead to stay at 6-5. The South Siders added an insurance run in the ninth, and the bullpen did the rest.

Zach Putnam, Dan Jennings, Matt Albers and David Robertson combined for 3.2 innings of scoreless relief. Robertson converted his eighth save in nine chances. Albers is unscored upon in his last 30 appearances, breaking the previous team record of 29 -- set by reliever Jesse Crain in 2013.

Useless stat of the day: The White Sox have scored 17 of their 68 runs this season in the seventh inning. Go figure.

Getting back to Gonzalez, we'll see if the Sox give him another shot. We were told velocity was the reason the Baltimore Orioles let him go after spring training, but it seemed like command was a bigger problem for him Monday than velocity. Did Sox brass see enough to believe he might be a better fifth starter option than John Danks?

Monday, April 25, 2016

White Sox put John Danks on notice (finally)

We're three weeks into the season, and the White Sox are coming off a sweep of the Texas Rangers that concluded a 5-2 homestand.

The South Siders have surprised even the biggest optimists by posting a 13-6 record through the first 19 games -- that's the most wins in the American League entering Monday's play.

That said, there was some roster juggling necessary over the past week. Catcher Alex Avila pulled a hamstring during Saturday's 4-3 win over Texas, and Kevan Smith was recalled from Triple-A Charlotte as Avila was placed on the disabled list.

More notably, Erik Johnson was optioned back to Triple-A Charlotte after going unused on the homestand, and Miguel Gonzalez was called up to start Monday's game against the Toronto Blue Jays -- the first of a weeklong, seven-game road trip.

Ace Chris Sale's start was pushed back to Tuesday. Jose Quintana will start Wednesday's game. For the second time this season, John Danks had his turn skipped, and he will pitch either Thursday or Friday against Baltimore.

It appears the Sox are (finally) sending a message to Danks that his spot in the rotation is not secure. The Sox are 0-3 in Danks' three starts this year, and 13-3 behind their other four starting pitchers.

Obviously, there will be some regression in those numbers as we go along, but Danks has earned his 0-3 record, which is coupled with a 6.23 ERA, a 5.52 FIP, a 1.65 WHIP and a 1.33 strikeout-to-walk ratio.

His struggles cannot be attributed to a small sample size, either, given his high ERAs in the past three seasons (4.75, 4.74, and 4.71). Right-handed batters are hitting .309 against Danks this year, after hitting .294 against him last year. Sending him to the mound against Toronto would be akin to raising the white flag, given the strong right-handed hitters in the Blue Jays lineup (Josh Donaldson, Jose Bautista, Russell Martin, Edwin Encarnacion, Troy Tulowitzki).

Toronto hitters had a 1.021 OPS in two games against Danks last year. In contrast, Danks had one of his best starts of 2015 -- seven scoreless innings -- against Baltimore, so from a matchup perspective, this Toronto series is a great time to skip Danks.

And, in case you were wondering, here are Gonzalez's numbers against the Blue Jays since 2012:

7-3, 2.61 ERA, 76 IP, 56 H, 7 HR, 21 BB, 54 K

Having played in Baltimore, Gonzalez has seen quite a bit of the Blue Jays, and he's won his share of the battles. That doesn't mean he'll win Monday -- there's a reason Baltimore released him. The Orioles let him go because his fastball velocity had dipped from 90-92 to 86-88. The Sox say Gonzalez's velocity came back in the two starts he has made at Charlotte, and that's why they are giving him a chance.

If nothing else, it's encouraging to see the Sox are considering other options for the No. 5 starting job beyond Danks, who has simply not pitched well enough to have a firm grip on the spot. We might learn that he's still the best option they have (for the time being), but it's clear the longest-serving, highest-paid member of the Sox is now officially pitching to keep his job.

Tuesday, April 19, 2016

Carlos Rodon's implosion costs J.B. Shuck his roster spot

Carlos Rodon was knocked out early Monday.
White Sox left-hander Carlos Rodon pitched terrible Monday night.

He fell behind eight of the nine hitters he faced. He could not command any of his three pitches. Here was the result: Single, strikeout, walk, walk, single, single, single, single, single.

The Los Angeles Angels scored five runs during an interminable top of the first inning and went on to beat the Sox, 7-0. The South Siders have now dropped three in a row to fall to 8-5 on the season.

Rodon's final line: 0.1 IP, 6 H, 5 R, 5 ER, 1 K, 2 BB

It was the quickest non-injury-related exit for a Sox starting pitcher since Aug. 28, 2003, when Neal Cotts got cuffed around by the New York Yankees.

For Rodon, it's only one loss, but this defeat could have repercussions for the Sox throughout the remainder of this seven-game, weeklong homestand. The bullpen had to throw 8.2 innings Monday night, and the Sox don't have another off day until May 2.

We can't say the bullpen did a poor job. Jake Petricka allowed a run over 2.2 innings and was reasonably economical, needing 33 pitches to record eight outs. Zach Putnam was even better, firing three shutout innings on 34 pitches. Dan Jennings needed 49 pitches to get through two innings of one-run ball. Zach Duke also pitched and worked a scoreless inning.

The end result is Petricka, Putnam and Jennings all are likely unavailable to the Sox on Tuesday night, and without a roster move, there would be no long reliever in place should Mat Latos struggle or get injured in his scheduled start.

So, the Sox were forced to make a roster move. Through no fault of his own, outfielder J.B. Shuck was optioned to Triple-A Charlotte after Monday's game. That makes room for right-hander Erik Johnson, who was recalled Tuesday.

Johnson has a 4.22 ERA with 12 strikeouts and three walks in 10.2 innings over his first two starts in Charlotte. He is stretched out to be a starter, so he can give the Sox multiple innings in Tuesday's game should the need arise.

Monday, April 18, 2016

April 18: the nine-year anniversary of Mark Buehrle's no-hitter vs. Texas

Mark Buehrle
I've long since lost count of how many baseball games I've attended in my lifetime. It's well up into the hundreds, I'm sure.

But the only no-hitter I've ever seen in person occurred nine years ago today, on April 18, 2007, when Mark Buehrle beat the Texas Rangers, 6-0, at U.S. Cellular Field.

I have my ticket stub and newspaper accounts from the game framed on my wall. I could live another 40 years and maybe not see another no-hitter in person, so that night in 2007 remains one of my most cherished baseball memories.

That game was a unique one in baseball history. It still is the only game ever to feature a multi-homer game, a grand slam and a no-hitter. Think of all the games that have been played over a century-plus in Major League Baseball. What I witnessed that night has happened just once -- Jim Thome hit two home runs, Jermaine Dye hit a grand slam, and Buehrle tossed a no-hitter, all in the same game.

I was very, very close to seeing a perfect gamet. Buehrle faced the minimum 27 hitters. The only blemish came with one out in the fifth inning when he walked the washed-up Sammy Sosa, then promptly picked him off.

Sosa was 38 years old at the time, in his last season in the big leagues. He was not a fast runner in the latter stages of his career. I don't know where he thought he was going. In any case, it was a funny moment because, well, Sox fans hate Sosa. He was a bum when he was with the Sox, then made his name with the Cubs (with the help of chemical enhancements), and it was always somewhat infuriating that he was wrongfully considered a better player than Frank Thomas in the city of Chicago. Time has proven that to be false, but it was great to see Buehrle embarrass the perpetually overrated Sosa with the pickoff.

The other image in my mind from that night was the final out -- a weak tapper up the third-base line by Texas catcher Gerald Laird. You heard a groan come up from the crowd as the ball left the bat; it definitely crossed my mind that the ball would die on the grass for an infield single -- it was that weakly struck. But fortunately, Sox third baseman Joe Crede still was in his pre-injury defensive prime at the time, and Laird was a slow runner.

Crede made the play easily, making it an historic and unforgettable night on the South Side of Chicago.

Thursday, April 14, 2016

The 'Small Sample Size' song

Relevant at this time of year as fans and media overreact to hot or cold starts by various players or teams: