Diamonds in the rough
The White Sox have the talent but not the results, and the Cubs try to stay afloat
Less than an hour after the reactionary Ozzie was sent to the clubhouse with his second ejection of the season, we saw the Ozzie who is talked about far less frequently, the completely rational manager who can make a cold, emotionless diagnosis that gets to the heart of what his team is facing.
Every loss feels like three or four. We don't relax. We've got to stop that. Every loss seems like the end of the world. I tell them, 'It's not the way you start, it's the way you finish. The talent is out there, so don't panic.'” -- Ozzie Guillen
When asked after Monday night's loss to the Cubs about the good stuff and the not-so-good, about the prospects of his White Sox the rest of this season, Ozzie Guillen had identified one thing he knows has to be solved. "Every loss feels like three or four," Guillen said. "We don't relax. We've got to stop that. Every loss seems like the end of the world. I tell them, 'It's not the way you start, it's the way you finish. The talent is out there, so don't panic.'"
So the big goal for the White Sox is to put together a stretch of play that will push them past Detroit and Cleveland in the AL Central. And that means, if we accept Guillen's theory, that the short-term goal is not to let a defeat such as the 6-3 loss to the Cubs in the series opener on the South Side affect the team like a three-game slide.
It's a strange state of affairs, Chicago baseball approaching the midway point of the season. Either folks don't know what to make of what's going on, resulting in 3,000 empty seats on a beautiful summer evening, or opening the series on a Monday night after having the Yankees in town this past weekend was a complete comedown. Anyway, the Cubs, even though they've won five of eight and should have taken at least two of three from the Yankees, aren't going to come anywhere near a spot in the playoffs. Too many injuries, youngsters who aren't close to being ready to lead a team, a rebuilding process that, to be brutally honest, is in its infancy. The Cubs haven't won back-to-back series this season, haven't even won three straight games this season. It was stand-up for Jim Hendry to say Monday night after Game 1, "Hey, I've made my share of stupid mistakes," but the fact is that Hendry's hands might as well have been cuffed while he waited an unconscionably long time, three years, for the club to be sold. Hell, there wasn't even a divorce proceeding involved. There's no shortcut here, no quick fix. Nobody wants to hear this, but the Cubs, no matter whom they might fire along the way, have to stay the course.
The White Sox, on the other hand, have what it takes to win their division this season, starting with a very deep rotation. Yes, Alex Rios has to keep hitting, and poor Adam Dunn, who swung the bat like Babe Ruth last summer in the NL but like Dr. Ruth so far in the AL, has to start hitting. Dunn, still well below .200, is already getting the Carlos Boozer treatment at home games, which is to say he's getting booed noticeably. Still, it's a talented-enough group that we shouldn't get to the trade deadline and start looking for Kenny Williams to bail them out with some kind of last-second miracle deal because the roster assembled in the winter ought to be good enough. In fact, the White Sox already have shown this season against the Red Sox and the Rays, among others, that the pieces are indeed in place.
One good thing is the White Sox don't seem to be delusional about who or where they are in the standings (5½ games out in the AL Central). As Paul Konerko, having just less than an MVP season, said after Monday's game, "We're not out of it; we're not in it, either. We're a team that's hanging around. We haven't clicked the entire season, except for the first week or so. It's been a grind all year; if it's not one thing, it's another. We do have head-to-heads left [against division rivals Detroit, Cleveland and Minnesota], a lot of them, but we've got to win a lot of them to make up for what we didn't do early in the season. So far, we'll begin to creep up a run or two, then we fall back. What we need is a nice 15-5 stretch. We have to have one of those "
Konerko also points out quite accurately that it's OK to grind the way the White Sox have so far, the way they did on the way to a division title in 2008 because "nobody seems to run away with divisions anymore. Years ago, you could be out of your misery very early on. But you can win a division now even if you don't play like a division winner most of the season."
To his point, in five of MLB's six divisions, the leader is ahead by no more than 1½ games. Cleveland leads Detroit by a game; Texas leads Seattle by a game; and the Red Sox lead the Yankees by 1½. In the NL, it's a half-game lead for the Cardinals over the Brewers and for the Giants over the Diamondbacks. Only Philly, leading the Braves by 4½, has anything resembling a comfortable lead. The White Sox's 5½-game deficit simply isn't overwhelming because the Indians have showed they're OK but not special since their hot start.
Detroit might have the league's best pitcher in Justin Verlander, who is an old-fashioned ace in every sense of the word. And the White Sox don't have anybody yet in the role of Jose Contreras in '05. But there's time for one of their six starters to emerge, perhaps (as unlikely as it sounds now) even Jake Peavy, scheduled to start against the Cubs on Wednesday. Peavy hasn't shown he can stay healthy for an entire season, but the White Sox just need him to be healthy for three to four months. Maybe John Danks, despite his horrid start, already has caught fire in his past three starts and can be that guy.
For at least one night, though, Hendry got to feel good about seeing Carlos Zambrano give a workhorse performance (115 pitches, 73 for strikes) after falling behind 3-0, Carlos Marmol save a game without great drama, and his everyday players rise above the kind of poor fielding and shabby relief pitching that sabotaged them in Games 2 and 3 against the Yankees. Hendry thought back to the 2003 and 2004 seasons, when the Cubs were a legit threat, and said, "I've been on both sides. It's my ninth year as a GM, and nobody likes to go through this side of it. I know close isn't good enough."
Williams has been on both sides, too, but he did better than get close, and the White Sox, with $124 million spent, seem to understand they have the physical talent and the know-how to make another run starting now. The immediate issue for the White Sox, presuming that Guillen's assessment is on the money, is whether they can forget Monday's loss and recover to win two of the next three games and settle into the kind of long-term form that will limit the negative impact of nights like Monday.
Michael Wilbon is a featured columnist for ESPN.com and ESPNChicago.com. He is the longtime co-host of "Pardon the Interruption" on ESPN. Wilbon joined ESPN.com after three decades with The Washington Post, where he earned a reputation as one of the nation's most respected sports journalists.