The Battle of the Sox That Wouldn’t End

On a day where Italy bested France on penalty kicks to win the World Cup and the Chicago area hosted a PGA Tour event (following up on my diatribe on this subject a few months ago, Rick Morrissey beautifully tore a new one into the PGA president for dropping the Western Open and rotating the tournament out of Chicago every other year starting in 2007) and a NASCAR race (pretty boy Jeff Gordon took the checkered flag in the USG Sheetrock 400) within a few miles of each other, the White Sox and Red Sox engaged in a 19-inning game that brought to the forefront a lot of issues for the second-half of the baseball season. A few thoughts heading into the All-Star break (no White Sox or Cubs games until Friday???):

1) The Pair of Sox Are Baseball’s Best – At the beginning of the year, I had about as much faith in Curt Schilling and Josh Beckett holding up for the entire season as I did in Mark Prior and Kerry Wood (who might be done forever) doing the same, which is the reason why I had picked Boston to finish behind both the Yankees and Blue Jays in the AL East. Well, it turns out that Schilling and Beckett haven’t broken down while the Bosox have solved their closer problems (Minneapolis Red Sox had a nice post last week on what makes a quality closer) with the emergence of Jonathan Papelbon (save for Jermaine Dye’s line drive rocket out of the park with 2 outs in the 9th to bring the White Sox back to life yesterday). With their pitching staff largely in order and possibly the strongest batting lineup from top to bottom in baseball, the Red Sox look like they are in better shape this season than they were when they won it all in 2004.

Meanwhile, the White Sox are bashing the ball on offense a lot better than last season, but the pitching staff has taken a step back. Bobby Jenks, of all people, has become the most stabilizing and consistent force off the mound for the ball club. The White Sox starting rotation hasn’t been clicking on all cylinders for quite awhile despite the fact that Jose Contreras hasn’t lost a decision since last August. Contreras has continued to be a rock, but the consistency from game-to-game for the rest of the starters has been lacking so far. Fortunately, the superior depth that the White Sox have in this spot means that they have a great chance to rectify this in the second half. I’m more considered about the middle relievers, who, outside of Neal Cotts, continue to fail to inspire confidence in me. That’s the area that I’m looking for Kenny Williams to shore up prior to the trade deadline. Still, we’re in a great spot here. I don’t think the White Sox have been playing up to par pitching-wise at all, yet they still have the second-best record in baseball.

Regardless, this weekend’s White Sox-Red Sox tilt was a possible ALCS preview with a look at the top two teams in the game at this time (the Tigers are just mercilous with their continued winning, but until they beat the White Sox head-to-head in a series, they’ve got a gaping hole on their resume). For that matter, if we took a combination of the top starting position players from just the White Sox and Red Sox and put them up against the starters from the National League All-Star Game, the only spot where I believe the NL would have an advantage would be at first base with Albert Pujols (and even there, a combined Sox team wouldn’t be giving up much at all with Paul Konerko or one of the virtual first basemen of David Ortiz or Jim Thome). The Red Sox took the weekend overall, but the White Sox winning a marathon game with two separate comebacks has got to have some carry-over effect the next time these two clubs meet in September at Fenway Park.

2) The White Sox Aren’t a Small Ball Team and Never Have Been – During the White Sox playoff run last season, there was a myth propogated by the national media that the team engaged in “small ball” or a bastardized version call “Ozzie Ball” that was the antithesis of the Moneyball philosophy advanced by Oakland’s Billy Beane and his follower Theo Epstein in Boston. This seemed to become the conventional wisdom despite the fact that the White Sox were fourth in the American League in home runs last season with higher power totals than the perceived-to-be-stronger-on-offense Red Sox.  I guess the media forgot that teams other than the Red Sox and Yankees actually existed in the American League, so they went and continue to go overboard in attempting to differentiate the White Sox.

All of this wouldn’t bother me if the White Sox themselves didn’t buy into this myth and just realize that they win a lot more of their games by Moneyball-esque power than by small ball. Instead, we get situations such as the bottom of the 17th inning yesterday. At that time, the White Sox had runners at first and second with nobody out and all they needed was one run to score to win the ballgame. It’s perfectly smart baseball to lay down a sacrifice bunt to move a runner who wouldn’t reasonably be able to steal from first base to scoring position. However, I’m not a fan of attempting a sac bunt when there is: (a) a man already in scoring position, (b) an advantageous 2-0 count in favor of the hitter, or (c) two strikes on the hitter. All of this occurred in the same at-bat by Tadahito Iguchi in that 17th inning, who ended up popping out straight to the pitcher on an attempted bunt with two strikes on him. Of course, the White Sox then grounded into a double play after that to kill the potential for a win in that inning. Fortunately, Iguchi redeemed himself by hitting the game-winning single in the 19th.

The point here is that the White Sox are not a small ball team and, therefore, shouldn’t try to act like a small ball team. If a guy is already in scoring position, the team has good enough hitters where a bunt has more of a chance to hurt them than to help. This is the only thing that Ozzie Guillen does as a field general that I have any criticism over.

3) Player to Dye For – Jermaine Dye was the MVP for the White Sox yesterday with both his bat with a 2-out 9th inning homer to tie the game and glove with an outstanding catch to prevent possibly a triple by the White Sox. For that matter, he has been the MVP for the White Sox for this entire first half of the season. If a World Series MVP could ever be underrated, Dye would fit the bill. While Jim Thome has certainly electrified the crowds at U.S. Cellular Field with his moonshot home runs, Paul Konerko gets the “Paulie” chants, and A.J. Pierzynski attracts attention in every way, Dye has quietly gone about his business by killing the ball at the plate and snatching everything in right field. An even better reward than the invitation to tonight’s Home Run Derby for the White Sox leader would be the opportunity to start in the All-Star Game itself as a replacement for the “injured” Manny Ramirez (he didn’t look hurt in playing all 19 innings yesterday). This is bigger no-brainer for Ozzie Guillen than any of his discretionary picks of White Sox players for the All-Star roster. Jermaine Dye should be starting in right field on Tuesday night.