1. With the sweep of San Francisco, the White Sox finished this ten-game road trip with a 7-3 record. Is that about what you expected or was it better?
Aaron Rusnak: I wouldn't say it's what I expected, but it's what I hoped for. We played two awful teams in Seattle and San Francisco, and taking five of six is what we should do. The Angels are a very good team, so splitting with them is very satisfying, and I can't wait to see them in our yard next weekend.
Thomas Barbee: It's much better than I expected. While I did see the Sox matching up well against the Giants, the fact that they were competitive for the entirety of this road trip is very impressive. If anything, that alone should put a fire under the rear ends of the Sox players as the only thing holding the team back at this point is themselves. Cut down the errors and pitching mistakes in key situations, and the Sox would be looking at a 10-0 road trip, and a much better overall record.
Patrick Nolan: Better. I rarely expect more than a .500 performance on the road from the Sox, especially given that four of the ten games were against the Angels. The Sox rebounded very, very nicely from the two losses to open the road trip.
Steve Jankowski: I think this trip went about as good as hoped for. The best part: We're back in first place.
Chris Stanley: Personally, I was hoping for 8-2, where they squeezed out a series win in Anaheim. However, you can't beat a 7-3 trip to the West Coast, even if three were against the Giants. Combine that with the series win against the Twins at home, and the Sox have won nine of their last 13 games. And it's always hard to sweep a team in their place, so this is a bit better than what I expected.
TJ March: After dropping the first two in LA, it ended up a ton better than I expected. What surprised me the most, however, is how consistent our starters have become. Sunday was the first outing since his second start in April in which Danks allowed more than two runs in a game. Buehrle was his typical self with his start on Saturday as well. If the starters can keep it up, the Sox will stay in this for a while.
JJ Stankevitz: In all honesty, I expected the Sox to go 5-5 on this trip, winning two in Seattle, one in Los Angeles, and two in San Francisco. My hope was that they would go 7-3, and that's exactly what they did. There were still some frustrating losses, but winning seven games on a road trip—to the West Coast, nonetheless–is almost unheard of with this organization.
2. As it stands, the White Sox are 1.5 games ahead of Cleveland heading into this three-game set in Chicago. Is this a big series or is it still too early to be thinking that way?
Aaron Rusnak: It's important to continue the momentum we gained on this road trip. A sweep and a 4.5 game lead would be awesome, and great to build off of. That being said, if we get swept, we're only 1.5 out and obviously not out of it yet. It's a big series for where we are in the year, which pretty much makes it not very big at all.
However, I really want us to kick the crap out of the Toons, and prove we can win within the division, because with the exception of the Tigers (whom we have killed) and Royals (whom we still are yet to play), we haven't played the Tribe or Twins too well.
Thomas Barbee: No, it's definitely a big series. The Indians have been playing really good ball, Reds series notwithstanding. Their pitchers are playing much better, so it shouldn't be the high-scoring series we had previously. Even this early in the season, a series like this serves as a statement to your opponent, so the Sox must take advantage.
Patrick Nolan: I think it's still a bit too early. Take any Team A with a 1.5 game lead over Team B with a three-game series to play. If the three game series is near the end of the season, the probabilities of each team winning the division swing much more with each game played than they do when you play on say, May 20—May 22, so I wouldn't call these high-pressure games.
However, every win and every loss clearly counts the same when all is said and done, and these games take on special significance simply because games against Cleveland are the only games when the White Sox can influence whether Cleveland wins or loses.
Given that Minnesota is being outscored and Detroit's struggles seem sustainable at this point, Cleveland will likely be the primary opponent in the division, and games against them are more important than those against other teams.
Steve Jankowski: It's big in the sense that the longer we keep the Indians behind us, and the further back we keep them, the better our chances of winning the division. That said, we have a long way to go.
Chris Stanley: Every series should be taken as big right now with the division so scrambled as it is. Cleveland's pitchers had that great stretch last week before they got swept by the Reds, and I'd bet they're a little ticked about getting beaten like that.
This is one of the first big divisional matchups for the Sox, seeing as how their battling the Tribe for first place right now. I think this is where we see if the offense is really coming alive or not.
TJ March: Every series is a big series. It's hard to start coming back from a big hole in the beginning of a season. However, especially with a team that you are going to be competing with the whole season, you don't want to give them any momentum. The Sox have the momentum coming into this series, going 7-3 and winning five straight on the West Coast, a trip that never usually goes well, and they are coming back into their park, under their rules.
JJ Stankevitz: I think this is a bigger series for the White Sox than the Indians. Despite their recent struggles against Cincinnati, Cleveland showed their true ability in the games before that series when their starters threw 50.2 consecutive scoreless innings. I picked Cleveland to win the World Series before the year started and am sticking to that—I think the Tribe will be fine in the end. However, if the White Sox can take two or three games in this series, it would go a long way towards their psyche for the rest of the season.
3. The offense still really hasn't been consistent since the second week of the season. Do you think they'll ever start hitting consistently (especially with runners in scoring position), or will this be a problem that plagues the team all year?
Aaron Rusnak: I think this depends on whether Thome, Dye, and Konerko ever decide to come around. Those three have slumped since last year, so I don't see why they would come around anytime soon. I like where we sit now, where the offense is compared to the losing streak a little while back. We are hitting enough to remain in ballgames and our stellar pitching is what is getting us wins.
Thomas Barbee: While they haven't been consistent, the Sox lineup has been showing the same kind of promise they were showing earlier in the year, with a variety of guys stepping up in key situations. Orlando Cabrera has finally looked more comfortable at the plate, while Nick Swisher and Alexei Ramirez have also contributed as of late. As long as the Sox have the consistent bat of Carlos Quentin in the heart of the order, they're going to be okay.
Patrick Nolan: Here's my brutal honesty on this subject. I never understand why people emphasize whether the offense is "consistent." "Consistent offense" is subordinate to "good offense." The Sox are seventh in baseball in batting average with runners in scoring position, while being 26th in overall batting average. They have hit significantly better than their overall numbers in these high-leverage situations. There is no problem "plaguing" the team.
Steve Jankowski: If they hit like they did on Sunday, they should be fine. But keeping that approach will be key to the offensive success of the team.
Chris Stanley: They will. This is a good lineup with dedicated players who are willing to put in the extra time. A week or two ago, it was just one guy holding everyone up. Now, A.J. and Carlos Quentin are leading the way, Joe Crede's average has gone up, and JD's hitting. Thome and Konerko are still question marks, but I've seen Paulie swinging for right field, a good sign. And as I've said for a month, this team tends to heat up with the weather in a good year. Look for the numbers to get up by the end of this month.
TJ March: As a Sox fan, God do I pray that it ends soon. The entire season their starting pitching has been tops amongst the majors. Danks, for instance, should easily be 8-1. But, thanks to a lack of run production, he is even at 3-3. Moving Quentin and Pierzynski might have been just the thing to get this aging lineup out of their collective funk.
JJ Stankevitz: Two weeks ago, getting men on base was the problem. Now, getting them in is the problem. Yes, the White Sox are hitting .284 w/RISP, but they're right at the Mendoza Line—.200—with runners in scoring position and two out, good for fourth worst in baseball. If the Sox could just up that to .230—a middle-of-the-pack team average—they would score a few more key runs per game that would really help this team win some games.
While I'm not sold that Konerko and Thome will truly come out of their slumps, Dye, Cabrera, and Crede have shown signs of life, and I think Swisher will start to hit better sooner rather than later.
4. Finally, it was about this time last year that the bullpen melted down. Why do you think this year is different (if you do at all)?
Aaron Rusnak: I don't think last year and this year's 'pens can be remotely compared. Dotel, Linebrink, and Jenks are a great seventh, eighth, and ninth combo. All three of them looked sharp, with Jenks and Linebrink keeping their ERA's under 2.00, and Octavio fanning 27 hitters in just over 17 innings of work. Nick Masset and Boone Logan have become completely different pitchers than they were last year, and I credit Don Cooper for their great turnarounds. And I also don't think Wasserman's 29.70 ERA will be around for too long.
Thomas Barbee: Well, yesterday's game gave a bit of a scare—but I believe the veteran experience sets this bullpen group apart from last year. Assuming that Dotel is okay after his bizarre appearance yesterday, where he walked every batter he faced, it's nice that the Sox have a solid guy for both the seventh and eighth innings leading up to Bobby Jenks.
I'd still like the Sox to get one more veteran arm to perhaps serve as a sixth-inning reliever when Ozzie doesn't want to use Nick Masset. I love Ehren Wasserman, but his confidence isn't there, and Ozzie Guillen is not going to want to experiment with him if he doesn't have to.
Patrick Nolan: The primary reason is luck. It's tough to find middle relievers who are both healthy and good pretty much every year. In 2006, we had very solid middle relief with MacDougal and Thornton. In 2007, we had absolutely awful middle relief with MacDougal and Thornton.
Kenny Williams, seeking security against such luck, signed one solid middle-reliever in Scott Linebrink for too many years. Kenny Williams, apparently enjoying wasting money on a problem that was already solved, then signed Octavio Dotel for too much money. I'm not saying that he didn't improve the bullpen by doing these things, but at the very least, one of these two signings can be classified in the "money that could have been better spent elsewhere" department.
Between MacDougal, Thornton, Dotel, and Linebrink (our four relievers who have had truly excellent seasons in the past), Kenny was very likely to find a couple of nasty set-up men, and so far this year, he's found three who are having excellent seasons.
Steve Jankowski: Scott Linebrink and Octavio Dotel aren't Mike MacDougal and Boone Logan. 'Nuff said.
Chris Stanley: More vets on the team. I was very surprised with Dotel and Linebrink; you become a journeyman for a reason, and they are two pitchers who've bounced around a bit, if I'm not mistaken. However, they've really been good in clutch situations for the Sox this year (aside from yesterday).
The Sox made a great decision in sending down McDougal to give him some time to work things out, and Bobby Jenks and Nick Masset have been dependable. The only question marks are on Boone Logan and Wassermann, the specialty guys. Boone's coming around somewhat, but I can't trust Ehren yet to keep his man off base.
Suffice it to say that I don't think the bullpen will collapse; they just don't look that tired yet. However, this series against Cleveland might expose their weaknesses with the dangerous hitters the Indians have.
TJ March: We have seen several small meltdowns already this season. However, the two or three guys that we need the most have been as consistent as anyone in the league. Jenks and Linebrink have locked down the eighth and ninth innings. Both have an ERA under 2.00. Last year, the biggest difficulty was getting the ball from the starters to the closer. Linebrink has stepped into that roll and has shown fully capable of doing it.
JJ Stankevitz: I think there's something to be said for veteran leadership in a bullpen. If you look at the bullpen last year, Boone Logan, David Aardsma, Andy Sisco, and Nick Masset all were relatively inexperienced at the MLB level, and all ended up with soaring ERAs by June. MacDougal's velocity had dropped, and Thornton fell back to earth after a very surprising 2006.
If you look at this year's bullpen, it's filled with veterans—Linebrink, Dotel, and Jenks—and guys who have taken their lumps and have learned from them—Masset, Logan, and Thornton. I don't foresee a bullpen meltdown anytime soon, and considering the state of other bullpens within the division, that could be a real key down the stretch.