White Sox's bats beyond cold
PHILADELPHIA -- Paul Konerko, one of baseball's most accommodating and insightful players, politely takes a pass rather than assess the offensive malaise that's turning the Chicago White Sox's season into a six-month road to nowhere.
"I'm all talked out," Konerko says. "Let's just try to win tonight, and go from there."
Konerko's manager, Ozzie Guillen, is pathologically incapable of no comments or clichés. So he expresses his displeasure over the team's recent slide -- three wins since May 25 -- by wondering why ESPN felt it necessary to air the White Sox-Phillies game Monday. Did all the contending teams have the night off?
"I don't want people to find out how horse---- we are," Guillen says.
What the White Sox lack in excitement value, they make up for in predictability. They went into the quintessential hitter's park Monday night against a starter, Adam Eaton, sporting a 5.99 ERA, and summoned their usual nada. They managed five hits, all singles, in a 3-0 loss at Citizens Bank Park.
"It's like watching ESPNEWS after 11 o'clock at night -- the same thing over and over and over for 24 hours," Guillen said. "That's what it feels like right now."
Guillen is almost as inventive with his batting orders as his imagery. When he wasn't making waves on Chicago sports talk radio, he was running out 49 different lineup combinations in the team's first 59 games. No matter who's leading off or batting ninth, Chicago's lineups have shared the same nagging aversion to crooked numbers.
At their most ineffectual, the 2007 White Sox appear to be channeling the 1959 Nellie Fox and Luis Aparicio version -- only without the speed and the karma.
You want consistent? The Sox rank last in the American League in batting average (.232), on-base percentage (.304), slugging percentage (.362), runs, hits, total bases, doubles and triples. They've struggled against lefties and righties, on grass and turf, day and night, home and away, against hard throwers and soft tossers, with the bases empty and ducks on the pond, on bobblehead days and refrigerator magnet schedule nights.
The White Sox have lost twice each to Johan Santana, C.C. Sabathia, Kelvim Escobar and Chien-Ming Wang, while also going down swinging against the Yankees' Tyler Clippard and the Royals' Jorge De La Rosa.
They've tried extra batting practice and no batting practice, soft-toss drills, reading scouting reports and studying tape for signs of flaws. Short of picking lineups from a hat, switching road hotels to change their luck or hiring Pedro Cerrano to build a shrine above the bat rack, they've tried just about everything.
The lack of offense has wasted some effective starting pitching while accentuating the flaws of a shaky bullpen. For a while, it even threatened to undermine the job security of hitting coach Greg Walker. But Sox general manager Kenny Williams quashed the speculation by throwing his support behind Walker in May.
"I love my job, but I understood coming in here that things happen," Walker said. "If anybody believes I'm not the right guy for the job, I'll go pick the next guy up at the airport."
Walker, who replaced Gary Ward as Chicago's hitting instructor in 2003, claims he's never seen anything this mystifying. He attributes the team's woes to a "perfect storm" of adverse circumstances.
It began with a run of terrible weather, although nothing worse than what the Seattle Mariners and Cleveland Indians encountered in April. Meteorological misfortune didn't throw their season into disarray.
Injuries have hurt as well. Designated hitter Jim Thome missed a month with a strained rib cage, and the White Sox announced Monday that third baseman Joe Crede will undergo back surgery Tuesday at Dr. Robert Watkins' office in Los Angeles and be out an undetermined amount of time.
Even if Guillen wanted to try to manufacture runs, the White Sox aren't well-suited for small ball. They're a bad situational hitting club, ranking 13th in the league with runners in scoring position. And with Scott Podsednik, Darin Erstad and Pablo Ozuna currently on the DL, their team speed is negligible. When the home runs aren't coming, they have to do it station by agonizing station.
More than anything, the White Sox have learned that slumps have their most profound impact between the ears. If it's true that hitting is contagious, so is ineptitude.
"We just got down early, and mentally, we panicked," Walker said. "Guys started thinking, 'Oh my God, I'm hitting .220,' or, 'I'm hitting a buck-fifty.' And baseball doesn't feel sorry for you. If you start going bad, it'll bury you.
"Obviously, the way you want to play this game is loosey-goosey and with a swagger. We played like that most of last year. The other way to play is frustrated. That's the way we played in the first two months of the season. That's a losing formula."
If anybody believes I'm not the right guy for the job, I'll go pick the next guy up at the airport.
White Sox hitting coach Greg Walker
While the Chicago players are almost universally producing below their career norms, much of the attention is focused on Konerko and right fielder Jermaine Dye in the middle of the order.
Konerko, who's averaged 38 homers and 110 RBI over the past three seasons, has nine homers and 30 RBI in 59 games. Dye, third in the league with a .622 slugging percentage last season, is slugging .399 this season.
A National League scout who has seen the White Sox several times this season said teams fed Konerko a steady diet of breaking balls in April, and it threw him out of sync. Konerko has a tendency to overanalyze the game when he's struggling, and he's taken a while to find his comfort zone.
The scout is more concerned with Dye, whose performance isn't helping his chances of making a killing on the free-agent market.
Dye, 33, has always been more of a gliding, single-speed kind of player than the explosive type. When he's productive he makes the game look relatively effortless, and when he struggles it can appear as if he's coasting. The challenge now is figuring out whether his skills are slipping or he's simply in a funk.
"I saw a lack of first-step quickness on defense and he was pushing a lot of balls to right-center field," the scout said. "That makes you wonder if his bat is slowing down."
One American League executive said the White Sox are playing with a noticeable lack of "energy." Then again, when the runs are this hard to come by, a team is always going to look flat. Guillen and Williams have both used the word "embarrassing" to describe what they're seeing, so they've made their dissatisfaction eminently clear.
A new story line is always just a day away on Chicago's south side. Relievers Mike MacDougal, Andrew Sisco and David Aardsma are all in Triple-A Charlotte trying to work their way back to the majors. And unless things improve shortly, trade rumors will begin swirling around Dye, starter Mark Buehrle and second baseman Tadahito Iguchi, all of whom will be eligible for free agency in November.
This much is certain: The White Sox picked the wrong division in which to go into a funk. If they played in the National League Central, they could win six of eight and climb right back in the mix. But the Tigers and Indians aren't very forgiving in the AL Central.
"The only thing I can do is wake up tomorrow and keep rooting for these guys," Guillen said. "I'm behind them 100 percent. But you have to ask our hitting coach and the players what's going on. I don't have the answers."
Asking questions is the easy part in Chicago. It's runs and answers that are in short supply.