Tuesday, June 21, 2016

Just like El Duque? Not quite but the White Sox will take it

Remember this?

I know. That's a silly question. If you're a White Sox fan, of course you remember Orlando "El Duque" Hernandez coming into a bases-loaded, no-outs jam with Sox clinging to a one-run lead in Game 3 of the 2005 ALDS.

Hernandez retired Jason Varitek, Tony Graffanino and Johnny Damon in succession without giving up the lead, and the Sox went on to win and complete the sweep of the then-defending World Series champion Boston Red Sox. Given what was at stake, Hernandez's performance that day became legendary, and is often cited by fans as being among the greatest moments during the 2005 championship run.
Zach Duke

On Monday night, current Sox reliever Zach Duke found himself in a similar predicament. He was summoned from the bullpen in the bottom of the ninth inning in a tie game. The Red Sox had the bases loaded, and there was nobody out.

OK, OK, let's not get carried away. This is June, not the ALDS, and there wasn't nearly as much on the line Monday night as there was that night in October 2005. But the venue was the same (Fenway Park in Boston), and Duke is English for "Duque," so we can draw some parallels there.

In any case, with the bags full, Duke retired Dustin Pedroia, Christian Vazquez and Ryan LaMarre in succession without giving up a single run, forcing the game to extra innings. Duke's teammates rewarded him with a win, as Jose Abreu's two-out, two-run double off Boston closer Craig Kimbrel lifted the South Siders to a 3-1 victory.

Back to the bottom of the ninth: Sox right-hander Zach Putnam walked three consecutive hitters to start the inning. Obviously, something wasn't right with Putnam, who was placed on the DL on Tuesday with an elbow injury.

Manager Robin Ventura summoned Duke into an almost impossible situation. According to FanGraphs, the Red Sox had a 93.8 percent chance of winning when Duke took the mound. Then, the Red Sox sent Dustin Pedroia to the plate as a pinch hitter. The All-Star second baseman was getting a rare day off, and came to bat with a robust .302 batting average. For his career, Pedroia has only struck out about once every 10 plate appearances, so the odds of him putting a ball in play that would win the game were high, to say the least.

But Duke did a masterful job of setting Pedroia up. He threw Pedroia a steady diet of breaking balls inside. They were far enough inside, in fact, that Pedroia could do nothing but hit them foul. On three occasions, Duke came inside with offspeed pitches. On three occasions, Pedroia hit foul balls down the left-field side.

Ahead in the count 1-2, Duke had Pedroia looking for offspeed pitches, so he wisely went with the fastball. His 1-2 heater missed, but his 2-2 heater had the plate. Pedroia, still with the thought of the inside breaking ball in his mind, swung late and swung through it. Strike three.

In retrospect, Pedroia was the biggest out of the inning.

The Red Sox's win expectancy still was at 83.6 percent as Vazquez came to the plate. But Duke used the overanxious 25-year-old's aggression against him. Duke threw five pitches in the at-bat, none of them for strikes. Vazquez swung at three of them, the last of which he chopped weakly toward the center of the diamond.

Tyler Saladino, serving as the Sox's fifth infielder, fielded it but made a lousy, one-hop throw to the plate. Catcher Alex Avila made the scoop and kept his foot on the plate to record the force at home. Two outs.

Boston's win expectancy dropped 66 percent as LaMarre came to the plate. The 27-year-old outfielder had just been recalled from Triple-A Pawtucket. It was his first at-bat in a Red Sox uniform. He was just 2 for 26 in his previous major league at-bats with Cincinnati last year, and he was overmatched by Duke.

The Sox lefty got ahead with a fastball, which LaMarre fouled off. Duke then fired three straight breaking balls down and in. None of the three were strikes. The overanxious LaMarre waved at two of them. No contact. A second strikeout for Duke, and miraculously, the Sox were out of the inning.

Abreu came through in the top of the 10th, connecting for the two-run double on a 99 mph heater from Kimbrel. Avisail Garcia and Adam Eaton scored on the hit, and the Sox broke their three-game losing streak.

Will clutch performances by Duke and Abreu finally spark the Sox out of their six-week-long malaise? I don't know, but it was a big win -- an unexpected win -- Monday night. That said, it doesn't mean much if the Sox can't back it up with another win Tuesday.

Putnam to DL; Beck recalled from Charlotte

As I indicated a few paragraphs up, Putnam is headed to the DL with ulnar neuritis in his pitching elbow.

The Sox have recalled Chris Beck from Triple-A Charlotte. The right-hander is 4-3 with a 4.47 ERA in 15 appearances (7 starts) with the Knights this season. I would not expect too much from Beck. The 25-year-old is a fringe prospect at best, and he'll probably join Matt Purke as a low-leverage pitcher out of the Sox bullpen.

The Sox saw their starting pitcher (James Shields) get knocked out in the second inning Saturday night. They played a 10-inning game Sunday. They played a 10-inning game Monday. It's fair to say the Sox relief corps is perilously thin going into Tuesday's game against the Red Sox.

Monday, June 20, 2016

White Sox get swept once again vs. a divisional opponent

"Poor Jose" Quintana
The White Sox are once again on a losing streak, having been swept in a divisional series against the Cleveland Indians over the weekend. Let's take a look back at the carnage:

Friday, June 17
Indians 3, White Sox 2: Jose Quintana ranks fourth in the American League with a 2.63 ERA. He's also 0-6 in his last seven starts because the Sox offense has scored only five runs total when Quintana has been on the mound during that same span.

It's no wonder we're seeing classic satire such as this when describing Quintana's hard-luck career pitching for a perpetually underachieving Sox team.

In any case, Quintana was spared a loss Friday. The Sox trailed 2-1 in the ninth inning, but back-to-back doubles by Brett Lawrie and Avisail Garcia off Cleveland closer Chad Allen tied the game.

While Quintana was spared, the team was not. Carlos Santana hit a walk-off home run for Cleveland on a hanging slider from Sox reliever Nate Jones in the bottom of the ninth inning.

Jones jumped ahead of Santana 0-2 with two good sliders. Sox catcher Alex Avila called for a fastball on 0-2, but Jones shook him off for another slider. Moral of the story: If you're going to throw the same pitch to a major league hitter three times in a row, you better make it a good one.

That third slider to Santana was as bad as it gets.

Saturday, June 18
Indians 13, White Sox 2: So, that James Shields trade isn't working out so well. The veteran right-hander needed only 11 pitches to get the Sox blown off the field in this game.

Shields walked Santana on four straight pitches to start the first inning. Jason Kipnis narrowly missed a two-run homer on Shields' sixth pitch of the game. The ball hit the fence for a double and placed runners on second and third.

Francisco Lindor hit an RBI single on the eighth pitch from Shields, and Mike Napoli connected for a three-run, opposite-field homer on pitch No. 11. At that point, it was 4-0 Indians, and the game was over.

Cleveland ended up scoring five runs in the first inning and three more in the second. All eight were charged to Shields, who was removed after lasting just 1.2 innings.

Shields has allowed 22 runs (21 earned) on 24 hits with nine walks in his first three starts with the Sox. We were told he is an "innings eater," but so far he's thrown only 8.2 innings.

In other words, he's recorded 26 outs as a member of the Sox, while allowing 22 runs. Let that ratio roll around in your brain for a moment. He's allowed 15 first-inning runs since the trade.

It makes no sense at all for Shields to remain a member of the starting rotation. You can't keep running a guy out to the mound who is putting your team four, five or six runs down in the first inning. Yet the Sox have stated Shields will make his next start Thursday in Boston.

Have I mentioned the Shields deal is the type of trade that gets GMs fired?

Sunday, June 19
Indians 3, White Sox 2 (10 innings): After the way the first two games went, Sunday's game just had a feeling of inevitability to it. Sox starter Carlos Rodon pitched pretty well; he went 6.1 innings and allowed only two runs.

That's not a bad outing at all, although it was disappointing that Rodon blew two leads. The Sox went ahead 1-0 in the first; the Indians tied it in the bottom of the inning. Melky Cabrera hit his sixth home run of the season in the fourth to put the Sox up 2-1; Rodon served up a home run to Juan Uribe in the bottom of the inning to make it 2-2.

It stayed that way until the bottom of the 10th when Jose Ramirez hit a two-out single with the bases loaded off Sox closer David Robertson to win the game. The Sox never trailed until the moment they lost, but watching the game, there was never a single moment where I thought they would win. Sometimes you just know it isn't going to end well.

The loss dropped the Sox (33-36) 5.5 games behind the first-place Indians. The South Siders have lost the last six head-to-head meetings with Cleveland, and they are 0-9 in road games against divisional opponents Cleveland, Kansas City and Detroit. They have been swept in three-game series in all three of those cities.

Overall, the Sox are now a combined 6-18 against Cleveland, Kansas City and Detroit -- the teams that remain relevant in the AL Central race. Manager Robin Ventura is now 140-190 (.424 winning percentage) against divisional foes during his tenure.

The Sox have dropped 26 of 36 since their 23-10 start. This "slump" has continued on for six weeks, but all the decision-makers in the organization still had jobs as of Monday morning.

People wonder why the Sox have a dwindling fan base and poor attendance. Personally, I can't blame people for not wanting to put up with this anymore.

Friday, June 17, 2016

Pete Rose, Ichiro and other people with more than 4,000 professional hits

Ichiro Suzuki
Miami Marlins outfielder Ichiro Suzuki now has 4,257 hits in his professional career -- if you combine his numbers in the major leagues with his totals from the Japanese League.

Pete Rose, of course, holds the record for hits in the majors with 4,256. Ichiro passing that figure with his combined total has provoked plenty of discussion of late, and Baseball Digest posted a graphic on its Facebook page that I thought was interesting enough to share here.

We normally think of Rose and Ty Cobb as the only two men in the 4,000-hit club, because they are the only two to achieve that milestone in the big leagues. But what if we included all the other professional leagues -- all the minor leagues in the U.S., the Japanese League, the Mexican League, the Cuban League, the Negro Leagues, so on and so forth?

Baseball Digest's research turned up nine men who achieved 4,000 professional hits. Here they are, from highest to lowest:
Julio Franco

1. Rose
Majors: 4,256
Minors: 427
Total: 4,683

2. Cobb
Majors: 4,189
Minors: 166
Total: 4,355

3. Ichiro
Majors: 2,979
Japanese League: 1,278
Total: 4,257

4. Julio Franco
Majors: 2,586
Minors: 618
Mexican League: 316
Japanese League: 286
Dominican Winter League: 267
Korean League: 156
United Baseball League: 6
Total: 4,235
Minnie Minoso

5. Hank Aaron
Majors: 3,771
Minors: 324
Total: 4,095

6. Jigger Statz
Majors: 737
Minors: 3,356
Total: 4,093

7. Minnie Minoso
Majors 1,963
Minors: 429
Cuban League: 838
Mexican League: 715
Negro League: 128
Total: 4,073

8. Derek Jeter
Majors: 3,465
Minors: 554
Total: 4,019

9. Stan Musial
Majors: 3,630
Minors: 471
Total: 4,001
Stan Musial

The first thought that comes to mind when looking at this list is, who the hell is Jigger Statz? Well, he was born in Waukegan in 1897 and played eight big-league seasons, including four with the Cubs from 1922-25. He played his last game in the majors with the Brooklyn Dodgers in 1928, but he continued to play in the minors until 1942, retiring just before his 45th birthday. I guess that's how you accumulate more than 3,000 minor league hits.

There are two players with White Sox ties on the list, the first of which is Julio Franco. I remember Franco playing shortstop with the Cleveland Indians when I was a little kid in the early 1980s. He was the designated hitter for the Sox in the ill-fated, strike-shortened season of 1994. He hit .319 with 20 home runs and 98 RBIs -- and remember, that season ended the second week of August. Franco's last game in the majors came as a 48-year-old with the Atlanta Braves in 2007. He collected six hits as a 55-year-old playing in the United Baseball League two years ago. I don't know if there's a more traveled player in the history of the game than Julio Franco.

Lastly, Minoso, aka Mr. White Sox, appears at No. 7. The only thing I can say about Minnie is this: How the hell is that man still not in the Hall of Fame? That injustice needs to be corrected. 

Thursday, June 16, 2016

Tim Anderson sparks White Sox offense from leadoff spot

Tim Anderson
I was skeptical when the White Sox called up shortstop Tim Anderson from Triple-A Charlotte last week.

Is Anderson really ready for the big leagues, or were the Sox just rushing him up to try to provide a spark for a struggling team?

Well, if the Sox were looking for a spark, they got one from Anderson in this past series against the Detroit Tigers. Manager Robin Ventura moved Anderson into the leadoff spot, and he responded by going 6 for 16 with 10 total bases and four runs scored in the three-game set.

Anderson was 3 for 5 with a triple and three runs scored Wednesday, as the Sox rallied for a 5-3 win over the Tigers and helped ace Chris Sale improve his record to 11-2.

With Anderson's promotion, Adam Eaton has been dropped from the leadoff spot to the No. 2 hole. Eaton's results also took a turn for the better against the Tigers. He went 8 for 14 with a double, a triple, four runs scored in three RBIs in the series.

By way of comparison, Eaton had been 9 for 60 (.150 average) hitting leadoff in his previous 16 games.

The Sox offense plated 23 runs in the series, largely because Anderson and Eaton were both consistently getting on base during the three games. The South Siders won two out of three, taking their first series from a division foe since they swept the last-place Minnesota Twins from May 6 to 8.

Through his first six games, Anderson is 8 for 25 (.320 average) with five runs scored. He has yet to draw his first walk, but he has four extra-base hits (3 doubles, 1 triple) and has only struck out four times.

All the usual caveats about small sample sizes apply, but the Sox have to be encouraged by what they've seen from their top prospect during his first week in the major leagues.

Tuesday, June 14, 2016

Big comebacks mean little if you lose the next day

Adam Eaton
The White Sox were trailing 7-0 in the bottom of the third inning Monday night against the Detroit Tigers.

Incredibly, they rallied to win, 10-9, in 12 innings on a walk-off single by Adam Eaton. It was the Sox's biggest comeback since June 28, 2002, when they erased an 8-0 deficit to beat the Cubs, 13-9.

The Sox (32-32) had lost 22 out of 30 games coming into Monday, so the popular narrative after this win is going to be this: Is this inspiring, come-from-behind victory going to be the thing that puts the Sox back on track?

Well, maybe. There were plenty of positives to take out of Monday's game. Jose Abreu homered for the second straight game and knocked in three runs. Eaton had a four-hit night, and Brett Lawrie and Avisail Garcia delivered clutch, RBI-producing hits with two outs in the bottom of the ninth inning.

Garcia's at-bat was perhaps his best of the season, as he battled back from an 0-2 count before lining a game-tying single to left-center off Detroit closer Francisco Rodriguez.

The Sox and their fans will take the win and be happy about it for sure, but it's worth nothing the Tigers have their ace, Jordan Zimmermann, pitching Tuesday. He'll be opposed by Miguel Gonzalez in the one pitching matchup in this series that does not favor the Sox.

If the Sox lose to Zimmermann, we're right back in that mode where we're talking about losing 23 of 32. If the Sox win tonight, hey, that's two in a row and a rare series win against a divisional foe. There's a big difference between those two mentalities, and it goes to show the momentum from Monday's win can be fleeting if it's not backed up with another victory in Game 2 of the three-game series.

Thursday, June 9, 2016

James Shields booed off the field in White Sox debut

James Shields
I was skeptical last week when the White Sox acquired right-handed pitcher James Shields from the San Diego Padres in exchange for pitcher Erik Johnson and shortstop prospect Fernando Tatis Jr.

Don't get me wrong: I'm not concerned about losing Johnson, who is a marginal pitcher at best. And the 17-year-old Tatis Jr. is years away from potentially making an impact at the major-league level.

Rather, I just don't believe in Shields. This is a 34-year-old pitcher with a high-mileage arm and declining velocity, and he's making the transition from a pitcher-friendly NL park in San Diego to a hitter-friendly AL park in U.S. Cellular Field.

Heh, heh, what could go wrong?

Well, plenty, unfortunately.

Shields absorbed a severe beating in his Sox debut Wednesday night, an 11-4 loss to the Washington Nationals. The NL East leaders roughed up Shields for seven runs on eight hits over two-plus innings. Shields struck out two and walked two -- and gave up three home runs.

By the time the Nationals completed their first trip through the batting order, they had hit three homers and scored six runs. Shields needed 79 pitches to complete two innings. He was removed to a chorus of boos after giving up a leadoff hit in the top of the third inning.


If Erik Johnson had pitched this game, he likely also would have given up three home runs, but he probably would have had the courtesy to space them out over five innings. Not so with Shields. He got the struggling Sox blown out of the game before they even had a chance to bat.

This game got so bad that outfielder J.B. Shuck pitched the ninth inning for the Sox. He was more effective than Shields, allowing one run on one hit during his inning of work.

I'm not sure what that says, but dating back to his last start in San Diego, Shields has allowed 17 runs over his last 4.2 innings. And, if he does not exercise an out clause in his contract after this season, the Sox are stuck with him through the 2018 season.

Oh, boy. This is the sort of trade that could get Rick Hahn fired if Shields doesn't turn it around.

Tuesday, June 7, 2016

Robin Ventura's winning percentage is down to .427 against divisional opponents

After a 23-10 start, the White Sox are now reeling, stuck in a freefall that has no end in sight.

They've lost 18 of 24 games. Their record entering Tuesday's play is a mediocre 29-28. Where they once led the AL Central by six games, they now trail the first-place Cleveland Indians by 3.5 games.

Some of these woes can be traced to the Sox's inability to defeat divisional foes, which has been a problem for as long as Robin Ventura has been the manager, if not longer.

The Sox have played 10 of their last 13 games against AL Central opponents. They have gone 1-9 in those 10 games, including nine straight losses. They took the first game of a doubleheader against the Cleveland Indians on May 23, then lost the next three games of the four-game series.

From May 27 to 29, they lost three in a row to the Kansas City Royals, blowing a four-run lead in the seventh inning the first game, a six-run lead in the ninth inning the second game, and a two-run lead in the eighth inning in the finale.

After a brief respite in which the Sox won two of three from the New York Mets in an interleague series, the South Siders were swept in a three-game series against the Detroit Tigers over the weekend. The Sox were outscored 22-9 in the series and generally looked overmatched against a fourth-place Detroit club (which, by the way, is now tied with the Sox for third).

Here's a look at the Sox's divisional record for each season during the Ventura era:

2016: 9-12
2015: 32-44
2014: 33-43
2013: 26-50
2012: 37-35
Total: 137-184

The only winning year against the division was 2012, and even that was skewed because the Sox went 14-4 against the 96-loss Minnesota Twins. They struggled against other divisional foes.

This year, that 9-12 mark is a bit deceiving, as well, because the Sox are 6-0 against a Minnesota club that enters Tuesday's play with a miserable 16-40 record. Against legitimate teams -- such as Cleveland, Kansas City and Detroit -- the Sox are a combined 3-12.

Ventura's winning percentage over four-plus years against his own division is down to .427. Not that his overall winning percentage is very good -- it sits at .462. But the Sox have shown they cannot win critical games under his leadership.

How much longer can the front office allow this to go on?