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WSI News - WSI Spotlight

Struggle Sox?
by Hal Vickery

For a team that looks as strong as it does on paper, the Sox have done an inordinate amount of struggling during the last month. Even though the Sox are still just 2.5 games out of first place as this is written, you have to ask, “What’s wrong with the Sox?” After all, this team looks even stronger than the club that went wire-to-wire last year.

The blame, if that’s what it is, can be distributed among several people, starting with the bullpen.

• Cliff Politte: A tower of strength in 2005, Politte has turned to Jell-o in 2006. Suddenly his pinpoint accuracy in locating the ball has abandoned him, and automatic outs have turned in to walks at best and home runs at worst.

The owner of a 2.00 ERA in 2005, Politte has seen that figure balloon to 6.30 through Saturday’s action.

• Brandon McCarthy: Maybe this is more of a mistake on the part of management than anything else. McCarthy has been groomed as a future starter, and certainly seemed ready for his shot with the big club in 2006. However, there is no room for him to assume the role of starter, so he finds himself in the bullpen where he has been spotty, sometimes looking brilliant but just as often looking terrible.

• Neal Cotts: Okay, he’s looked a lot better lately, but his ERA is 3.47 while last year it was a sparkling 2.94. Cotts is another one of those bullpen pitchers who has been spotty, just not as bad as Politte has been.

• Jeff Nelson: A recent call-up, the thirty-nine year old Nelson has an ERA of 3.38, but has had trouble hitting his spots, often making the situation worse after being called to the mound. Check these statistics out:

On May 23 against the A’s Nelson faced two batters, walking one. The next day he faced one A’s batter and gave up a hit. Nelson lost his next outing on May 27 against the Blue Jays. He did strike out a batter, but gave up a walk, a hit, and a run in one inning of relief. Two days later against the Indians, he faced two batters, striking out one, and walking the other. The only difference last Thursday was that he didn’t strike out the batter he got out. Friday he faced two batters, and the result was a walk and a hit.

That’s not the type of “help” you want coming out of the pen.

You can pretty much exempt the starting pitching from most of the problems the Sox have been facing, the one exception being Jon Garland. For almost two months Garland seemed to think that he could only pitch on the outer half of the plate. The result was a series of shaky (to put it mildly) starts, but a winning record. Garland had his bacon saved on several occasions by the Sox offense.

However, in his last couple of starts, Garland has found the inside of the plate. He won the first of those starts against the Blue Jays despite being unable to keep the ball low. The next time out, last Friday against the Rangers, he pitched inside and kept the ball down, only to see the bullpen blow the 3-2 lead he left with.

There are a couple of offensive problems the Sox have had to deal with.

• Juan Uribe: A career .258 hitter, Uribe didn’t break the Mendoza line until May 24. Right now his average, after peaking last Tuesday at .212, has dropped back to .207. Greg Walker has been working with Uribe to try to get him to become a little more patient at the plate.

This situation has forced Guillen to play Alex Cintron more often at shortstop.

• Brian Anderson: The Sox have a good enough offensive club to cover for one weak bat, but few clubs can cover for two. Anderson is the second weak bat, and the one who would seem to be expendable since he is only hitting .159, and through Saturday had just one hit in his last thirteen at bats. As a result, Anderson has spent more time on the bench while Rob Mackowiak has spent more time in centerfield.

This is unfortunate, because although Mackowiak’s offense is good, he is definitely an average to below average centerfielder while Anderson is terrific on defense. This has possibly led to a couple of Sox losses as Mackowiak has been unable to get to a couple of balls in game situations that Anderson might have gotten to.

Last Friday against the Rangers, the Sox had a man on first with Anderson due up. Not trusting Anderson’s bat, manager Ozzie Guillen pinch hit Mackowiak for Anderson. Mackowiak made the third out, and as luck would have it, a drive to deep center that Anderson might have gotten to ended up giving the Rangers the winning run.

So there you have it. Guillen has at two pitchers in his bullpen who are spotty, and one who has been an absolute disaster. He has a starter who might be relearning how to pitch in and down. Finally, he has two weak bats who have been benched more and more frequently as the season progresses in an effort to produce some offense at the bottom of the batting order.

As fans we can maybe live with a couple of spotty pitchers in the pen, especially Nelson who will work less frequently than Cotts. However, the Politte situation may have to be dealt with soon. Either McCarthy or Nelson will have to become more consistent so they can fill his spot, or Kenny Williams will have to trade for someone to replace Politte.

Right now most Sox fans groan when they see Politte coming out of the pen. Soon those groans may change to boos as the fans become more restless with a pitcher who can’t seem to get the job done.

Garland seems to be righting himself, so there is hope that he will be as effective as he was the first half of 2005. Fans should be willing to let him continue to improve, as long as they see improvement.

The offensive dilemma is almost the hardest to solve. The Sox were built around pitching and defense. And the offensive woes this year are coming from two key defensive positions, centerfield and shortstop. Juan Uribe will likely come out of his doldrums.

The big question mark is Brian Anderson. The kid plays terrific defense. But he isn’t hitting anywhere near his weight. But substituting Rob Mackowiak considerably weakens the defense. Guillen may have learned at least one lesson this week, though. Mackowiak should never be in the outfield in the late innings of close games.


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.

More features from Hal Vickery here!

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