- Gene Wojciechowski, Senior Writer
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CHICAGO -- Less than two years after winning the World Series, the Chicago White Sox are such a mess they could apply for FEMA disaster money and probably get it.
Of course, don't mention this to Sox owner Jerry Reinsdorf; he might fill out the papers himself. Reinsdorf is the guy who sold his nightly starting times (7:11) to a convenience store chain for not much more than the major league mininum salary of $380,000, so anything is possible.
The White Sox aren't irrelevant -- yet -- but they're getting dangerously close to Whatever-Happened-To-Them? status. A few more losses like the one they suffered to the Cubs Friday afternoon at U.S. Cellular Field and you can officially put a pitchfork in the Sox season.
It isn't just that they lost to the dysfunctional Cubs, 5-1, or that Cubs starter Carlos Zambrano had a season-high 10 strikeouts before the end of the fifth inning, or that the Sox are now 11 games under .500. It's that the White Sox keep insisting they'll be fine, that there's still time to salvage what appears to be an unsalvageable season.
"Right now," said White Sox manager Ozzie Guillen, "this team right here, the last thing we thought is that we were going to struggle in every aspect of the game. People talk about relievers, no hitting -- no, every aspect of the game we struggle.
"I know they're trying. I know they go out and play hard everyday. I know they go about their business the right way. The players are the first ones who know when they struggle. I don't need to let them know they struggle. No [bleep]! We know. But the thing about this ballclub -- I got the same ballclub for four years. I know almost everybody on this club. I know the way they are. I know the way they feel. That's why I cannot do anything different. They are trying."
What'd you expect Guillen to say? "Give me a white flag. I'll run it up the center field foul pole myself?"
The last thing we thought is that we were going to struggle in every aspect of the game. People talk about relievers, no hitting -- no, every aspect of the game we struggle.
-- Ozzie Guillen
Actually, Guillen is honest enough to say exactly that. But not now. Not even after Zambrano held the White Sox to three hits and struck out a career-high 12.
"He caught the White Sox at the right time," said Guillen.
Almost every day is the right time, though, in Guillen's defense, Zambrano did have electric stuff Friday.
"I'll tell you what," said Cubs manager Lou Piniella, "it was nasty."
"Zambrano was about as good as I've ever seen him," said catcher A.J. Pierzynski, who scratched out one of the three Sox hits. "That's the best stuff I've probably seen all year."
Zambrano was so overpowering that during the fifth inning Guillen turned to Sox bench coach Joey Cora and said, "I hope he don't throw a no-hitter."
He didn't, but he didn't have to. That's because the White Sox are a pie crust of their former selves. There's no filling, only the usual questions about the gruesome bullpen, the lack of hitting, or the newest injury.
For the first time since May 31, Sox center fielder Darin Erstad returned to the lineup. He lasted exactly one-half inning before re-injuring his left ankle. He was last seen headed for an MRI.
Starter Mark Buehrle left the game after seven innings because of "flu-like symptoms." In other words, ralph-a-rama.
Guillen, who didn't have a clue about Buehrle's condition until after the game, knows the feeling. He had to watch his bullpen give up the three ninth-inning runs that turned a 2-1 Cubs lead into 5-1 Cubs win. The good news? The game only took 2 hours and 33 minutes.
"In the seventh inning I said I hope it starts raining right now, stop the game for a little while," said Guillen, who must dread choosing someone out of the worst bullpen in the big leagues.
No rain. Only another gray cloud over the White Sox.
The official team stance is that there's just enough time to perform reconstructive surgery on this season. Look at the schedule, they say: two more games at home against the sub-.500 Cubs, then a four-game series against sub-.500 Tampa Bay, then three games against sub-.400 Kansas City, then four games against sub-.500 Baltimore. It's like a gift from the scheduling gods.
Except that this isn't the old White Sox, the White Sox who would leave cleat marks on the Cubs, Devil Rays, Royals and Orioles. Now the White Sox are those teams. They began the day with fewer wins than any of those four. Stunning.
"I'm not going to be reactionary," said Sox general manager Ken Williams.
Maybe not, but Williams did send at least one head rolling on Friday. He fired amateur scouting director Duane Shaffer, who had spent 35 years in the organization. That should turn things around.
Williams might not be panicking, but the boos that cascaded down from the U.S. Cellular upper decks Friday say the feeling isn't mutual. The White Sox have gone from champagne showers in 2005, to 26 games over .500 at the 2006 All-Star break, to this: fourth place in the killer AL Central and even more depressing, 20 losses in their last 25 games.
Anybody who thinks the Detroit Tigers or Cleveland Indians are going to gag away the division title hasn't been watching enough "Baseball Tonight." The Tigers, especially with that lineup and starting pitching, aren't going anywhere except to the playoffs. And the Sox can forget about a wild-card spot. Not with the New York Yankees and Oakland Athletics also in the postseason mix.
Williams sounded as if he were annoyed that "so many people have bailed on us." But it's hard to pretend his team isn't one of the five -- maybe even three -- most disappointing teams in the majors this year. From 90 wins a season ago, to -- and don't laugh -- 70 wins this year?
Afterward, in a nearly deserted clubhouse, someone asked Pierzynski if he had any answers for the White Sox descent into baseball hell.
"No, do you have any?" he said.
Just one: Only eight more months until spring training begins.
Gene Wojciechowski is the senior national columnist for ESPN.com. You can contact him at email@example.com.
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