Things are trying to fall into place.
The White Sox rain-shortened road trip was a modest success as the South Siders return home with a record of 5-3. They went 3-2 over the last week (Monday to Sunday) and both losses were by a single run.
On Saturday night, they withstood sloppy fielding (four errors), a determined Reds team, and a shaky ninth inning from Bobby Jenks to nail down an ugly 10-8 win.
On the other side, a bullpen meltdown Thursday cost the Sox a Wrigleyville sweep, and a lack of offense on Friday gave Jose Contreras his first loss since returning from the minors.
Things are trying to fall into place, but the Sox still have no identity.
With the best team in baseball coming into Chicago and Round Two of the Crosstown Classic this weekend, the Sox are facing what Ed Farmer likes to the call "the moment of truth."
Is this ballclub set up to make a run at the divisional title, or is a summer fire sale in the near future?
Interleague play is over, so the Sox can rest easy: no more pitchers in the batting order. Although Mark Buerhle showed his muscle in Milwaukee, Ozzie Guillen would much rather have Jim Thome getting regular at-bats and hitting balls the other way.
Also, the top of the order is clicking.
Scott Podsednik and Alexei Ramirez combined to go 16-43 (.373) with 10 RBI and eight runs scored last week. Ramirez had three home runs in four days, two to give the Sox the lead after the fifth inning.
With a good 1-2 punch setting the table (Pods has 10 steals since entering the Sox lineup in late May), opposing hurlers will have to pitch the middle of the order very carefully.
Clayton Richard is looking like a flash in the pan. He only lasted three innings in his start at Cincinnati, and his sixth-inning error opened the door to Sox's only loss to the Brewers.
The rest of the rotation has looked solid in the last two weeks, but with Richard faltering, the No. 5 spot is becoming a black hole once again.
The bullpen is also hitting a wall.
The lack of success from the starters in May and early June means their workload has increased to the point where only D.J. Carrasco and Matt Thornton can be counted on.
Scott Linebrink blew the save to the Cubs on Thursday, and Bobby Jenks gave up a run and two hits Saturday night to make a close game closer.
This week's starting pitchers need to last at least six innings and hold down a pair of good offenses this week so the bullpen can get some rest.
What's at stake
The Dodgers have the National League's best pitching staff and a great offense that has run even without the presence of Manny Ramirez. Matt Kemp is a double threat that can hit and cover ground in center field, and Joe Torre's wizardry has made Juan Pierre into a good ballplayer again.
All this has led to great early season success as the Boys in Blue are the only team 20 games over the .500 mark.
As Jim Thome has said, this series is a great litmus test for the White Sox.
John Danks, who is starting the opener against Randy Wolf, has pitched well lately. Clayton Richard (who is pitching the rubber match) has not. If both lefties can go deep in the ballgame, the Sox have a better chance than most people think at winning this series against Los Angeles.
The Cubs, due to mad pole jocking by ESPN and some thrilling comeback victories, might have turned a corner. Their offense had let down a good pitching staff most of the season, but they swept the Indians over the weekend after beating the White Sox in the last of the ninth on Thursday.
They swept the Indians, a last place team who is fast falling out of contention. Add that to a demoralizing loss against the Braves tonight (a 2-0 defeat in which they recorded 10 hits), and the Cubs are about where the Sox are: a middle-of-the-road team looking for a spark.
The impact players
Gordon Beckham has truly arrived.
The youngster recorded his first major league home run in Saturday's win over the Reds, and he has hit well enough to raise his average from sub-.100 to just under the Mendoza line.
However, his fielding (two misplays in the Saturday game) shows that he might still be nervous. Beckham will be put to the test this week. It will be huge for the team if he can deliver in the clutch.
Dewayne Wise is still one of my favorite Sox players, but, save for the last two games, he has been playing his way off the team. Since returning from the disabled list, D-Wise's average has dropped to .176, and that includes his three hits in the last two games.
Five right-handers pitching against the Sox combined with Brian Anderson's low BA against right-handers means Wise will get playing time. With Podsednik playing well and Jermaine Dye returning to the lineup, Wise needs to stop pressing, get quality at-bats to help the team, and (as much as I hate to say it) increase his trade value.
Scott Linebrink is not invincible anymore.
He was in the early part of the season, but now, Sox fans get nervous any time he takes the hill. He did a fine job in the Saturday game, but allowed a late run in a close game on Sunday.
Ozzie will be watching Linebrink closely, but he is needed to take the pressure off Matt Thornton and fellow setup man Octavio Dotel.
This week is the White Sox's "moment of truth." With three tough pitchers to face in the Dodgers series and the emotional rivalry of the Crosstown Classic, I believe these six games will decide the fate of this team.
Will the ChiSox measure up, or will some familiar faces be sent packing in another "White Flag Trade"?
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