- Phil Rogers
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CHICAGO -- When Lou Piniella took his first look at the 2008 schedule, he thought there must have been a mistake. Then he smiled.
While other teams from the National League Central were playing an interleague schedule against the American League East, the Cubs were not playing Boston or the Yankees. This scheduling quirk seemed too good to be true and maybe it was.
"I'm not so sure we got a break at all, now that I look at it," Piniella said the other day. "We've got Baltimore, Tampa Bay, Toronto, and we play the White Sox two series. There's a lot of good pitching on those teams, especially the White Sox. Stop and take a look at what their rotation is doing. They get a good game every time out. That's a good team. They just might win that division."
The White Sox?
The same White Sox who tried the addition-by-subtraction formula after ranking seventh in the AL in starter's ERA a year ago? The same White Sox who decided they could trade veteran right-hander Jon Garland -- as reliable a starter as any in the majors since 2002 -- for shortstop Orlando Cabrera because Gavin Floyd and John Danks (combined career: 14-23 with a 5.95 ERA in 317 2/3 innings entering this season) were available to fill the back end of the rotation?
Yes, those are ones.
But thanks largely to the emergence of Floyd and Danks, as well as the resurgence of 2005 postseason hero Jose Contreras, the White Sox are winning with their starting pitching.
Manager Ozzie Guillen said as much one day last week.
"With the starting rotation, we feel comfortable what we're going to get from them," Guillen said. "I think that's why we are where we are."
After sweeping Cleveland a week ago in Chicago, the White Sox will be in first place when they meet the Indians at Progressive Field in a three-game series that begins Monday night. The Sox have built a 27-22 record despite scoring just 4.4 runs per game, the ninth-highest total in the AL.
The key, as Guillen pointed out, is a starting rotation that has a 3.49 ERA, which ranks third in the AL. Javier Vazquez, Mark Buehrle, Contreras, Floyd and Danks have taken every turn in the first two months.
The significance of that can't be overstated, given the injuries that have affected so many other teams' starting pitching, including Central rivals Cleveland, Detroit and Minnesota. But health is hardly the only thing going right for the White Sox.
With a painful divorce behind him, Contreras has found new life for both his fastball and his long career. GM Ken Williams looks wise for having targeted former first-round picks Floyd and Danks in trades that cost the White Sox Freddy Garcia and Brandon McCarthy, respectively.
The only real givens for the White Sox entering the season were Buehrle and Vazquez, his feet squarely under him after a dizzying period in which he pitched for four teams in four years before turning 30.
Contreras, who is listed as 36, had gone 14-26 with a 5.93 ERA since the All-Star break in 2006. The Sox shopped him for trades throughout 2007 but found no takers, not with two years and $20 million remaining on the deal he got after serving as an ace on the team that went 11-1 in the '05 postseason. The White Sox had little choice but to trust Contreras to get himself back on track.
Guillen became hopeful when Contreras arrived in Arizona with a smile on his face. He had both a sense of purpose and some zip on a fastball.
As spring training drew to a close, Guillen talked about the significance Contreras carried for a team that had completely lost its swagger since being handed World Series rings.
"He might be the key," Guillen said of Contreras. "He'll have a lot to say about the performance of our pitching staff."
Contreras, bombed for eight runs by Cleveland on Opening Day 2007 (not coincidentally, the same day he was served divorce papers by his wife of 19 years), was solid throughout April, but he hit his stride in May. He threw eight strong innings against the Angels on Sunday but wound up with a no-decision, leaving him at 5-3 with a 3.06 ERA.
He has come a long way since Guillen briefly assigned him to the bullpen last August, a move that served as a wake-up call.
"I thought at the middle of [last] year, this was it, that I wasn't going to be able to pitch because the velocity was down and I was losing and losing," Contreras recently told the Chicago Tribune. "But the velocity kept climbing up [late in the season], and I won some games after coming out of the bullpen."
Contreras was tested in every possible way in 2007.
"It was very hard, going through a divorce, and also the [two] kids," Contreras said. "The day I pitched was fine, but the other four days that I had to deal with everything mentally took a toll on me."
Contreras also has regained his low-90s velocity after spending much of last season in the mid to high 80s. He always has been a workout fiend but hired a personal trainer to help him with an offseason program that minimized the lower-back and hamstring issues he experienced in the past.
He's pounded the strike zone with his fastball, setting up his deadly forkball.
He's gotten hitters swinging at more pitches, and the stats show command has been as much of a key to his success as anything. He has walked only 16 in 59 2/3 innings, a rate of 2.4 per nine innings.
Floyd likewise has been throwing a ton of strikes. That's the surest sign his confidence has returned after being destroyed when he failed to immediately meet the high expectations created for him when Philadelphia took him with the fourth overall pick in the 2001 draft.
I've been finding myself the last year or two. I've been trying to find it ever since I lost it. But piece by piece, it has come together. I made it very complicated [in Philadelphia]. It's easier said than done, but, 'Keep it simple, stupid.' I try to keep it simple now.
-- Gavin Floyd
Floyd got his first big league opportunity in 2004 but had never pitched well enough to make more than 11 starts in a season. He shuttled between big league clubhouses and more spartan ones in Triple-A, entering this season with a 6.30 ERA in 178 2/3 innings with the Phillies and White Sox.
In Guillen and Williams, he finally has found a management tandem that trusts him. He beat Detroit in his first two starts this season and twice has flirted with no-hitters, building the 4-3 record and 2.93 ERA that he will take into a Wednesday start in Cleveland.
"I knew I had the ability, but I lost [confidence]. I wasn't sure I was going to get it back," Floyd said. "I feel confident now. Completely different. I had my tail between my legs three years ago."
Don Cooper, the White Sox's pitching coach, made no major changes with Floyd when he arrived following the Garcia trade in 2007. Cooper told Floyd to trust his fastball, slider, curveball and changeup. His curve has developed into a killer pitch, breaking hard off a tight rotation that is tough for batters to pick up.
"I've been finding myself the last year or two," said Floyd, 25. "I've been trying to find it ever since I lost it. But piece by piece, it has come together. I made it very complicated [in Philadelphia]. It's easier said than done, but, 'Keep it simple, stupid.' I try to keep it simple now. The name of my game is throw strikes, and I'm going for it."
Danks, 23, is the baby of the White Sox rotation. The Rangers viewed him as a potential ace but gave up on him because they considered McCarthy to be a little more advanced.
Guillen gave Danks 26 starts at the back end of his veteran rotation in 2007 but looked on with alarm as the young left-hander deteriorated after the All-Star break. Danks ended his rookie season 6-13 with a 5.50 ERA but has bounced back to go 3-4 with a 3.00 ERA through 10 starts this season. He might not be an ace in waiting, but he's the best lefty the White Sox have added since Buehrle arrived in 2000.
"If you have the opportunity to get one of these [former first-rounders], you have to believe there's something physical there for him to be that level pick," Cooper said. "Sometimes things don't go right where they're at. Sometimes people just need a change of scenery."
For the first-place White Sox, the performance of the entire rotation has been a change for the better.
Phil Rogers is the national baseball writer for the Chicago Tribune, which has its Web site at www.chicagosports.com. His book, "Say It's So," a story about the 2005 White Sox, is available in bookstores, through Amazon.com and by direct order from Triumph Books (800-222-4657).
The starting rotation led the White Sox to the World Series title in 2005, and it's back to being the team's strength three years later.