Sox finally show potential
Early-season struggles created doubt, but the Sox have the talent to get back in it
CHICAGO -- All is sanguine and beatific at 35th and Shields, or as I like to call it the corner of World and Series, where the heat rises off the home team's bats and the air smells of burnt National League pitcher.
Free from the doldrums of spring, Ozzie Guillen is playing to full crowds of reporters, Kenny Williams is once again overhyping another first-rounder to fatten him up for a future trade and the beat-up collection of walking-dead corpses known as the Chicago White Sox is winning again.
The Sox came home like marauding Mongols after a nine-game trip, which included taking two of three on the North Side, with a sparkling .500 record, a mediocrity thought impossible two weeks ago when everyone wondered which 2005 hero would be exiled first, A.J. Pierzynski, Paul Konerko, Bobby Jenks or Guillen himself.
Now fans and media are talking about adding a left-handed bat and enjoying the puppy dogs and ice cream coverage that comes with a winning streak.
Surely, Surly Williams is happy, right?
"No. We are in third place," Williams said before the Sox disposed of Atlanta 9-6 on Tuesday night. "You know how I feel like that. I'll be happier when we get to first place. Somewhat happier."
Williams is actually "somewhat happier" already with the improved starting pitching, defense and clutch hitting that has contributed to the Sox's seven-game winning streak which has them 4½ games back in the AL Central.
"I didn't expect us to be back to .500 this quickly so this team has responded and showed some resiliency," Williams said. "At this time, those efforts should be commended and acknowledged in the form that, OK, they are going to keep pushing, we have to see what the possibilities are out there to help them out."
Guillen must be happy the Sox came into this series at .500, right?
"That's not my goal," he said. "My goal is to win. Two, three weeks ago, it was hard for us to believe we going to get back to .500 this week. But if you play .500 in our division you finish third or fourth, I guarantee you that. Third or fourth. You've got to shoot higher."
But to shoot higher, you have to start somewhere and that's what the Sox did, starting by taking two of three against Detroit and going on a winning spree against the Cubs, Pittsburgh Pirates and Washington Nationals -- not exactly a murderers' row, so there was good reason for people to be reticent over the Sox's hot streak.
"People make it sound like we went to the National League and we beat the crap out of those guys," Guillen said. "We didn't. We just played better baseball. Obviously Atlanta is a better team because they're in first place. Baseball isn't like basketball, it's different. You never know what's going to happen."
Well, except when Scott Linebrink pitches. Then you have a pretty good clue. He gave up a 411-foot homer to Brian McCann to start the ninth, and then another run. It was the fourth time the embattled reliever has given up a homer in his last six outings. But forget about Linebrink for a minute. This is a winning streak, after all.
Given the cynicism that encircled this team since camp broke in April, this series against Atlanta was supposed to be a nice measuring stick of where the Sox stand among other playoff contenders.
The win, which was more convincing than the final score indicates, showed that Chicago's offense is really heating up, as it continued its dominance of the National League with a good performance against a solid pitcher. The Sox scored all nine runs and collected 13 of their 16 hits against Braves starter Tommy Hanson, who came into the game 7-3 with a 3.38 ERA.
"I think we did a good job throwing strikes to us, and we weren't chasing bad pitches," Guillen said. "We did make pretty good contacts. Even our outs were good contacts. I think even Gordon [Beckham], he didn't have any hits, but he hit three balls right on the nose."
When a bad team goes good, reticence comes next. So coming into this series, everyone had similar thoughts: Did the Sox play better against worse competition or did they just look better? And if that's true, how do you explain their troubles with the Cleveland Indians?
"The game is not as easy as it has been the last week and a half," Paul Konerko said. "It will get tough again and how we respond will be key."
Well, against Atlanta, the quick-change artists that were leading the NL East coming in, the Sox showed they are really, and truly, hot and not bothered. Most importantly, Chicago wasted no time coming back from a brief 3-0 deficit. Carlos Quentin, who's grinding out an early playoff beard, broke the team's eight-game homerless streak with a three-run shot in the fourth.
"I predicted back in Washington, if Carlos continues to swing the bat the way he's doing right now, we can score more runs," Guillen said.
The Sox scored five in the second, one in the third and three in the fourth to back John Danks (7-5, 3.23 ERA). Danks had an ominous beginning, giving up a leadoff homer to Martin Prado and a two-run double to Brooks Conrad in the second. But he finished with seven strong innings, giving up three runs on six hits. He allowed the bullpen to have some room to breathe, which it needed.
"These guys putting up nine tonight definitely made it a lot easier on me and the rest of us," Danks said. "It gave us an opportunity to be aggressive and not worry about holding a one-run lead or whatnot."
The Braves aren't exactly the 2000 Yankees, but regardless of whom the Sox beat, the only important thing is that they've been winning, seven straight, 10 of 11, 12 of 14, whatever. Pierzynski's 10-and-5 rights kicked in after the Cubs series and there's no talk about disposing of veterans and starting over. Not that people aren't calling the Sox to inquire.
"Yeah. It's like sharks in the water and buzzards hovering over," Williams mused in his Sox batting practice jersey in the dugout. "I'm usually one of the buzzards hovering over. It has been an interesting experience to be on the opposite end. I can't say I have enjoyed it."
"We are always trying to add," Williams said. "There have been a few occasions over the years going back to when we sent Ray Durham to Oakland, that I can say honestly that was a subtraction we had to make for payroll purposes. But since then, even in 2007, you guys didn't believe it, but we were actively in the trade market to add. We knew we would have a tough time coming back that year, but sometimes you add for the year after that thinking you have a good core.
"We have not been in the mode for selling for the sake of selling for a long, long time. Even if the perception is we are moving this player or that player, it's still with the mindset to win the next year. We are incapable as long as I'm sitting in this year of thinking any other way."
Sox chairman Jerry Reinsdorf indicated to beat writers in Washington, D.C., that money won't be a complete deterrent if the Sox need something.
"Well, all I know is what I read in the paper the other day when you guys asked him about it," Williams said. "I was glad to hear that was a possibility. That's the first I heard about it. I'm glad it's on record. It's on record from what I understand."
A reporter reminded Williams that he doesn't believe what he reads.
"I believe the things I want to believe," Williams said.
Don't we all? Before the season started, I believed the Sox could return to the World Series by winning a tight division and then shutting down the big boys in the playoffs with their can't-miss rotation, kind of like 2005.
For two months I looked like a homer and an idiot. Now a serious Sox run is not so hard to believe.
"We're playing good ball," Guillen said."The way we thought we were going to play from the beginning. Exactly what we thought, pitching and defense, grab some runs here and there, play good baseball. That's exactly what we're doing now."
As a few baseball writers milled about in the back of the press box, another writer looked over to see what he was missing.
"We're doing playoff seating," someone said.
And we all laughed. No one really believes in this team just yet, but as they say, there's a lot of baseball to be played.
Jon Greenberg is a columnist for ESPNChicago.com