Thome helps put Sox on the offensive
CHICAGO -- You couldn't blame Mark Buehrle and company for feeling like they were owed a little bit of run support from their friends. After all, it was the pitching staff that carried the White Sox to a championship last season.
A lineup fueled by the addition of Jim Thome has been the biggest strength for manager Ozzie Guillen's team as it looks to build off its 2005 success. This is quite a change for a team that won it all in '05 despite finishing ninth in the American League in runs scored and 11th in on-base percentage.
"I say it's about time,'' Guillen said on Sunday, after the White Sox beat the Minnesota Twins for their eighth straight win. "In 2005 it was just pitching, pitching, pitching and some clutch hitting. Now we're letting the pitching staff make a couple mistakes and still be in the ballgame. We built this ballclub around clutch hitters and good players. Hopefully they'll keep it up all year.''
The White Sox led their division wire-to-wire a year ago, joining the 1927 Yankees as one of the few teams to lead all season, lead their league in victories and then sweep the World Series. Yet most of the time Chicago hitting coach Greg Walker looked like he had just chugged a glass of sour milk.
It was the greatest season of Walker's career, and also one of the most demanding. "We didn't have any easy games,'' Walker said.
With the addition of Thome, increased assurance in Jermaine Dye and the knowledge that players have bought into the selfless approach preached by Guillen, there have been days recently when Walker felt almost, well, confident. And why not?
Thome's combination of patience and power seemingly changes everything. He joins Paul Konerko and Dye to give the White Sox a 3-4-5 combination that is as good as any in the majors.
"He's on every pitch right now,'' Minnesota general manager Terry Ryan said of Thome, who is hitting .327 with nine home runs, 19 runs driven in and 22 scored. "I know [we got him out] a few times in this series, but believe me, everybody is holding his breath every time. ... Every manager spends the whole game looking to see where [Thome] is in the lineup. Then after you get through him you have to deal with Dye and Konerko, too.''
Collectively, Thome, Konerko and Dye are hitting .335 with 17 homers and 49 RBI in 176 at-bats. Despite leadoff hitter Scott Podsednik and rookie center fielder Brian Anderson hitting .206 and .178, respectively, the White Sox are averaging 5.9 runs per game, a pace that would produce 963 over the season -- a gain of 222 over last season.
"We've been scoring runs and winning ballgames without a leadoff hitter," Podsednik said at one point.
Sunday's 7-3 victory over Minnesota raised Chicago's record to 13-5, giving the White Sox a 29-6 record overall since they ended 2005 by winning 16 of their last 17, including 11 of 12 in the postseason.
That's quite a record given that it's been put together in the two most important times of the season -- the end and the start. This season did not start auspiciously, however, with the White Sox going 1-4 in the first week.
The winning streak started when the pitching staff, which had struggled early, began to assert itself.
During the streak, the White Sox starters (including newcomer Javier Vazquez, who flirted with a no-hitter against Kansas City on Wednesday) are 8-0 with a 1.74 ERA. The White Sox have scored 50 runs, only a small increase from earlier in the season.
Their average of 5.7 runs in the first 10 games helped the defending champs buy time. They were 5-5 even though their pitchers started by allowing 60 runs in 10 games. They couldn't slug their way to wins a year ago.
In the first 18 games last season, the Sox won games by scores of 1-0, 2-1 (twice), 3-1 and 4-3. This season they already have won games 10-4, 13-9, 9-2 and 9-0 (and lost 11-7 and 13-7).
While it took 53 games for the White Sox to produce their first two double-digit scoring days last season, they scored 10-plus in their first and ninth games this season.
They scored 10 runs or more in only eight games last season, and six of those came in the seven weeks that Frank Thomas was healthy enough to hit alongside Konerko. They're on pace to produce 18 such games this year.
Thome, acquired when the Philadelphia Phillies decided they had to clear a spot for Rookie of the Year Ryan Howard, has been on a tear since the last week of spring training. But his value goes beyond hitting home runs.
"Carl Everett gave us a lot last year,'' Walker said, referring to the team's primary designated hitter in '05 (with Thomas disabled) who is now in Seattle. "We got a lot out of the DH spot. But the thing Jim brings, besides the obvious power, is that he's gonna be on base all the time. We didn't get many walks last year.''
Konerko, who had 81 walks, was the only White Sox player who walked even 50 times. Boston had eight of those guys, the Yankees seven, Oakland six and Cleveland four. The White Sox were 11th in the league with a .322 on-base percentage.
Walker knew that was going to change as soon as general manager Ken Williams pulled off the Thome trade.
"I am really excited about having him in the lineup,'' Walker said. "I really am. I've studied Jim's swing for years. When I do work with left-handed hitters, we use his videos to help us teach. He's fun to watch. He does a lot of things that are technically correct. You take a big, strong guy with sharp, fast-twitch reactions and repeatable, perfect mechanics and, wow, you get some hitter.''
Through 18 games, the White Sox had a .369 on-base percentage, which ranked behind only the Yankees and Red Sox. When Thome took an 0-for-4 on Sunday, it ended his streak of not only reaching base in every game but also scoring a run. He had needed only one more game to tie the longest scoring streak in history, set by the New York Yankees' Red Rolfe in 1939 and tied by Cleveland's Kenny Lofton in 2000.
"If you're going to go after a record like that, you have to be a guy like Jimmy, a guy who gets on base a lot,'' Konerko said. "I think he'll have a lot of those streaks this year -- maybe not 17 in a row, but he's going to score. I guarantee he's going to score a lot of runs.''
For Konerko, that will mean giving up his distinction as the team's scoring leader. He led the White Sox last season with 98 runs, which ranked 17th in the league. Leadoff man Podsednik was next with 80, which ranked 31st.
Through Sunday, Thome (22), Konerko (17) and Tadahito Iguchi (15) were all in the AL top 10 in runs scored. Nobody appreciates the change more than their teammates on the mound.
Phil Rogers is the national baseball writer for the Chicago Tribune, which has a Web site at www.chicagosports.com. His book, "Say It's So," a story about the 2005 White Sox, is available at bookstores, through amazon.com or direct order from Triumph Publishing (800-222-4657).
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