Head South. Catch a winner.
Upcoming Sox-Twins series so intriguing, even a Cubs fan shouldn't miss it
CHICAGO -- While the Cubs' ever-proactive front office held a fantasy camp at Wrigley Field on Monday, the White Sox were firmly entrenched in reality.
And no, I'm not talking about a boring reality show.
The White Sox are actually in the thick of a real pennant race. While the Sox went 4-4 on their recent road trip, losing 3-2 Monday night in Baltimore on a walkoff homer in the 10th inning, they come home at the perfect time.
The loss dropped the White Sox into a tie atop the AL Central with the Twins, who come into town for a three-game series starting Tuesday.
Chicago's only living baseball team starts its biggest homestand of the season this week, with six games against AL Central rivals, the Twins and Tigers. Next week, the Sox go back to Minnesota for the teams' penultimate series of the season.
Given how tight the Sox and Twins are, and always seem to be, any considerable advantage obtained in the next week could have a major impact on the teams' fortunes this fall. Good thing the Sox are coming home for the first leg, where they're 18-2 over their last three homestands. After four days in Baltimore, I have a feeling the South Side is going to feel pretty inviting.
It should be left unsaid that Sox fans should be filling the park, living vicariously through the South Side team. But if history holds up, there will be empty seats.
With the Cubs playing out West for the next few days, to a TV audience of friends and family, I can think of no greater protest for the angry North Side fan than to switch allegiance for the next week, spend their money at the Cell and make it known the Cubs can't rely on blind support by offering $3,000 fantasy camps, less-disgusting bathrooms and bison dogs.
Before you call me an idiot or a neophyte, I'm not here to hector or lecture and say Chicagoland should support one baseball team if it's going good. No one's saying Cubs fans have to support the White Sox, or vice versa. The rivalry between the fan bases makes it fun, even if it sometimes borders on asinine. Cubs fans basically ignored the Sox's World Series run and they missed a great time. Maybe they shouldn't make the same mistake twice.
But what if surly Cubs fans show up this week en masse, dressed in their blue and red garb, and show their solidarity toward a team that is gunning for a division title? What if they hold up signs like: "Our hearts are at Wrigley, but our $$$ is here," "I hate the White Sox but I love baseball" or "At least I can't hear Hawk down here. Yes!"
The ticket struggles of the Cubs have been partially exaggerated -- they're still averaging 38,737 in paid attendance, even if a good portion are from Iowa or Texas, or are invisible. The Sox come home just 18th in average attendance at 26,100, putting them behind such heavyweight teams as Houston and Seattle. That number should be higher, especially for a team that has won a World Series in the past five years, but it is getting better. As to be expected, the Sox are drawing better as they continue to impress. In their last seven-game homestand, they averaged 30,843 fans, with two crowds over 35,000. As Ozzie Guillen has opined in the past, Sox fans can differentiate between a good team and a bleepin' one.
But when I did a few searches for tickets for Tuesday's game on Monday night, the "best available" seats were pretty good -- lower box seats. So there is still room on the bandwagon.
Fans of the Wrigley Field experience can still enjoy themselves watching bad baseball at Clark and Addison, but if you like good baseball, I'm just saying there's an alternative. And it's a perfect time to pay attention with the Twins coming to town.
After Monday's loss, the Sox have won 10 of 15, but the Twins have been nipping at their heels, winning 13 of their last 17.
The rivals play one more series after next week, Sept. 14-16 in the South Side, so every game between the rivals really matters. The ever-pesky Twins have managed to keep pace despite a lost month from the concussed Justin Morneau (DL since July 8) and a power downturn from Joe Mauer (six home runs, none at home).
The teams have similar schedules down the stretch, each having 28 home games. While the Sox have a home series against the Yankees and seven games against the Red Sox on tap, the Twins have seven against Texas and four at home against Toronto coming up.
Prediction website Coolstandings.com is giving the Twins a one-game edge going into the series, with numbers pointing to 92.6 wins for Minnesota against 91.6 for the Sox. The site says Minnesota has a 55.9 percent chance to win the division to 44 for Chicago. All this does is augur the belief these two teams will be playing for a division title in the last week of the season, if not a 163rd game, like in 2008.
Here's a little primer on the Sox for any new fans I've convinced to keep reading:
The Sox manager is still Ozzie Guillen. He likes salty language, the hit-and-run and Mark Kotsay.
Kenny Williams is still the Sox's general manager. He's not lacking for confidence. He also co-owns a popular restaurant in the West Loop.
At this point in 2009, the Sox were 57-55 before a late August freefall augured a 79-83 record. Guillen's club is in much better shape right now at 63-49.
While Jake Peavy went out with an ugly back injury, the Sox recently replaced him with Edwin Jackson, who looks to be a pretty formidable fifth starter, joining one of the best pitching quartets in baseball. Gavin Floyd and John Danks are the best two pitchers in the city, with Floyd 6-1 with a 1.17 ERA in his last nine starts. Danks has a 1.13 WHIP and is holding hitters to a .224 average.
Unlike the Cubs, who employ a host of no-name, no-stuff relievers, the Sox have the bullpen to compete for the AL pennant -- if closer Bobby Jenks continues his recent slide, J.J. Putz, Matt Thornton or even Sergio Santos could close -- and a lineup conceivably better than 2005.
Led by Juan Pierre (16-game hitting streak, 43 steals), the Go-Go Sox are second in baseball with 106 stolen bases, but also easily first in caught stealing, with 55. By comparison, the Rays, a possible playoff opponent, are first with 138 steals and have only been caught 35 times.
The Sox's traditionally stout middle of the order is still potent, with Alexei Ramirez, Alex Rios, Paul Konerko and Carlos Quentin a pretty dangerous crew. Konerko is having a particularly good season with surprisingly little press. He's hitting .302 with 28 home runs and 77 RBIs, including a tying solo homer in the top of the ninth Monday.
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While the Sox, who struggled to score at Baltimore, were sixth in home runs and eighth in slugging percentage (all figures before Monday), they are only middle of the pack in on-base percentage and an oddly disappointing 26th in doubles.
In the American League, the Sox's 182 doubles are currently the worst in the league. (OK, next-to-last, but do Seattle's hitting stats really count?) On the flip side, the Sox came into Monday's game hitting .277 with runners in scoring position, second-best in the AL, so at least their hits were coming when it counted.
Even with the Bears' preseason schedule kicking off and college football on the horizon, the Sox should be the biggest story in town.
I hate to be "that guy" who tells sports fans what to pay attention, but this isn't a reality show or a march to oblivion. It's real, it's fun and these games actually mean something.
The White Sox bandwagon has room. Good seats are still available.
Jon Greenberg is a columnist for ESPNChicago.com.