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WSI News - WSI Spotlight

The Pinch Me Sox!
by Hal Vickery

Pinch me! I think Iím dreaming!

Before the 2005 season started, I was cautiously optimistic about the chances of this yearís White Sox team to win the AL Central. It would be too Cubs-fan-like to do anything but remain that way. Iím a Sox fan. I wonít be happy until the magic number is a big, fat zero. But you canít help loving the way the Sox have started their 2005 campaign.

As this is being written, the Sox have just put together their best start in franchise history. We saw last year what key injuries can do to a team with a winning record, so itís far too early to start crowing, but you can take a look at why the Sox are doing better than ninety-nine percent of the so-called experts predicted.

First and foremost is the improvement in starting pitching. In 2004 the Sox searched the entire season for a fifth starter and came up empty. Of course there wasnít much there after the Mark Buehrle, and Jon Garland until Freddy Garcia came over from Seattle. So far this year the Sox have gotten good to outstanding work from all five starting pitchers.

Is there anyone who yet doubts that the starting rotation of Buehrle, Garcia, Jose Contreras, Orlando Hernandez, and Garland this season is far superior to the rotation that started the 2004 campaign, consisting of Buehrle, Esteban Loaiza, Garland, Scott Schoeneweis, and Danny Wright (who,due to injury, was soon replaced by the Bum of the Week)?

One of the biggest factors in the improvement in the starting pitching may or may not be a result of the strengthening of the rotation. We canít know the cause, but we have seen the effect. Jon Garland has suddenly become the pitcher everyone has predicted he will be. Instead of being a nibbler, Garland this year has taken charge and is challenging the hitters, most of whom arenít adequate to meet the challenge.

Was it the perceived demotion of Garland from the number three to the number five slot in the rotation? Itís possible, but there is an alternative theory. Garland, for all his major league experience is still only twenty-five years old. Perhaps he has just matured. Perhaps heís had help from A. J. Pierzynski and Chris Widger, both of whom are regarded as excellent handlers of pitchers. Whatever the case, the rapid improvement of Garland has made him the top fifth starter in baseball this year.

You canít ignore the improvement in the bullpen this year either. Although the role of closer seems to be up in the air with the somewhat disappointing start of Shingo Takatsu, who replaced Billy Koch as closer in midstream last year, the bullpen is indeed stronger.

The additions of Dustin Hermanson and Luis Vizcaino, and the seeming return to form of Damaso Marte give manager Ozzie Guillen a lot of options late in games. He can set up with any of these four pitchers and he can close with any of them. Some might call it ďcloser by committee.Ē Others would simply say that Ozzie has the ability to match his pitchers to the situation. Count me in that latter group.

It was fun reading and listening to all the ďexpertsĒ who predicted the sinking of the Sox to fourth place this year because by trading Carlos Lee to the Brewers and letting free agent Magglio Ordonez go to the Tigers, the Sox had weakened their formidable offense. It is amazing how the ďmereĒ fans here at WSI knew better than the so-called ďexperts.Ē

Well, on second thought maybe it isnít so amazing. People who follow the Sox day by day knew that sitting around playing station to station ball while waiting for the three-run homer had resulted in the Sox winning an average of about 84 games per season between the 2001 and 2004 seasons.

Fans quickly bought in Guillenís idea that the offense needed to be balanced. The additions of Tadahito Iguchi from Japan and Scott Podsednik from Milwaukee, put speed and contact hitting at the top of the order, again giving Guillen a lot more options while still retaining at least five players who are more than capable of hitting twenty or more home runs.

When the Sox won a couple of early games with the long ball, some of the naysayers ridiculed the so called ďsmall ballĒ offense. Those who actually know something about the game shot back that all this shows is that the Sox have a lot more options to play with.

As if to prove that point, the Sox have gone out and won several games now without hitting the long ball, making use of singles, walks (at least once they got past the cream of the better pitching staffs in the division), and more importantly using their hitting and baserunning skills to take advantage of opponentsí mistakes.

This has come in handy as the season started. The Sox offense has yet to hit on all cylinders, yet they are off to the best start in franchise history. They have done this as a result of great pitching and an offense that is more than one-dimensional.

I would be remiss if part of this column didnít deal with the manager himself. Ozzie Guillen has the type of ball club he wanted from the start. And so far heís winning with it. This is the kind of club Guillen knows how to handle.

Of course the local print and electronic media donít pay attention to that. Instead they have played up Guillenís supposed insult to Frank Thomas, which was not an insult at all if you read the complete transcript of what he said or heard the tape of it.

When that didnít pan out, some reporter went to Guillen with a quote from Magglio OrdoŮez in which he said of his former manager, ďWe never clicked, even when we played together," Ordonez continued on his relationship with Guillen. "I don't consider him my friend. I have nothing to say. I don't want to see him. I don't want to talk to him. He's my enemy. Even if he talks to me and tries to apologize, I won't accept it."

Guillen shot back with a profanity-filled response. The media, of course, were ďshocked,Ē many of them calling Guillenís response disgraceful while ignoring what provoked it (not to mention who elicited the response from Guillen). A lot of people thought that this would be a distraction. If it was a distraction, the Sox could use more of that type. After all, the Sox swept the Tigers and then went on to sweep the Kansas City Royals, too.

Some see Ozzie Guillen as a clown because he likes to talk, because his command of the English language is not as great as their own, and because he often says the first thing that comes to his mind. What they either forget or donít realize is that Guillen has been a student of the game for years. He knows baseball. He knows the type of baseball he wants his team to play, and he knows how to communicate with his players, the people he really does need to communicate with.

So with improved pitching, a balanced offense, and a manager who has the team he asked for, will the Sox win the AL Central and perhaps make it to the World Series in 2005? I donít care to make that prediction yet. Too much can happen between now and October. But you canít deny the Sox are exceeding the expectations a lot of people had for them this year.


Editor's Note: Hal Vickery has been a White Sox fan since 1955 when he was five years old. For much of that time he also had a secondary rooting interest in the Cubs, which he has shown the good sense to abandon. When not cheering for or writing about the Sox, Hal teachers chemistry and physics at North Boone High School, in Poplar Grove, IL. Hal commutes there daily from Joliet, where he lives with his wife Lee, and their dog, Buster T. Beagle. Hal's opinions are not necessarily those of North Boone High School, his wife, or Buster T. Beagle. You can write Hal at hvickery@svs.com.

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