So we're finally here. Friday, July 18.
Baseball is back in Chicago.
I can hear the collective sighs of relief...and the underlying apprehension.
After all, when you live in Chicago, and your team is in first, you don't usually have the mindset of, "Wow, it's really nice to be in this spot! Let's start buying up playoff tickets!"
It's more of a, "Man, these guys are banged up; they're due for a letdown any day now. Hey you, quit hitching that bandwagon up!"
So baseball is back on the South Side of Chicago. Where do we go from here?
Buy or sell?
The big questions all year for the White Sox have been Paul Konerko and Jim Thome. They both got off to slow starts, which everyone said was excusable. But then Paulie K went on the disabled list and Thome still wasn't hitting.
The murmurs could be heard on every postgame show, every message board, and every White Sox blog: Is it time? Is Paulie done? Should we trade Thome?
Of course, since it's Chicago, those questions were actually definite statements, usually heard with that unique Chicago accent (you remember how the Superfans used to say "sausage"? People in my town really talk like that).
Either way, Paulie went on the DL and Jim Thome looked like he could only hit home runs. Heading into the break, Jimmy T started to heat up and Konerko came off the injured list, but the questions were still in the air.
Were the two sluggers dead weight for the Sox? Would they ever turn the corner?
My take is this: Paul Konerko does not look like he'll regain his '04/'05 form. He has half a season, and who knows what could happen. But there are many doubts in my mind as to whether we'll see the Sox captain start to really hit.
Jim Thome will cool down with the weather, I think. I hope I'm wrong, but he's that kind of streaky. I am glad that he was paying attention to me, though; did you notice how Thome started to hit more doubles?
Bottom line: I wouldn't let either of them go. The intangibles of both players are too large to ignore. Imagine a three through six of Dye, Thome, Quentin, and Konerko? Along with Alexei Ramirez in the two-spot and Joe Crede in the seven-hole, that's a formidable lineup on any day.
How to stay on top
There are a lot of things that have to happen for the White Sox to take the crown come October. Even with the batting slumps and pitching inconsistencies, they've dealt with few injuries. But a letdown at any time in August, or even the end of this month, could spell the end, especially with those lousy Twins right behind the ChiSox.
What's the formula to success?
Five parts seven-inning starting pitchers
The Sox bullpen has been absolutely top notch this season. But there is always the inevitable point in time where arms get tired and control gets less than pinpoint. To keep the relievers at peak condition, the Sox starters have to stay at the top of their game and go deep into games.
With Scott Linebrink, Matt Thornton, Octavio Dotel, and Boone Logan able to safely pitch one inning each, the seventh and eighth innings are taken care of. All the starters need to do is go at least six or seven innings every start, even without their best stuff. This goes strongly for Jose Contreras, Javy Vazquez, and Gavin Floyd.
A few cups of good defense
In '05, it was Juan Uribe and Joe Crede. These days, it's Jermaine Dye and Alexei Ramirez.
They have been throwing the leather around the field as if baseballs were in short supply, and the rest of the team needs to follow suit. Carlos Quentin looks like he's receiving a crash course in playing left field, and Joe C's old glove might be on its last legs (or webs.)
The defensive effort has to be better. The White Sox are simply allowing too many four-out innings.
Sprinkle in the timely hits
You know why the All-Star Game didn't end on Tuesday night? It wasn't because Bud Selig conspired with the umps to stretch things out for ratings (helllooooo, Tim Donaghy!). It was because that timely hit wouldn't come. Carlos Guillen's leadoff double in the 12th was left out there, and the same happened when the National League got runners on base.
The White Sox can't afford to strand runners on base. I'm going to keep saying it: Comiskey Park plays like launch pad in July and August, and take it from me: It's way past the point of heating up in Chicago.
No lead is ever safe, and the Sox need to improve their team batting average with RISP.
Stir with managerial discipline
Ozzie's been worked over the coals a lot this season, due to the White Sox's well-publicized internal disputes. He's the lightning rod of the team, but he's stated that he likes it that way, as it takes the spotlight off the players.
The Wiz is no rookie skipper, but this summer is going to be more under the microscope with the implications of the Sox and Cubs potentially making the playoffs.
The professional sportswriters (along with the likes of you and me, of course) are going to be armchair managing every move Ozzie Guillen makes, so it's up to him to make the right ones.
And finally, add in a pinch of the X-factor!
It's hard to decide who could step out and just propel the Sox to the postseason. "The Quiet Storm" A.J. Pierzynski has been much less vocal that previous seasons, so it could be him. It could be my favorite bench player, Dewayne Wise, or maybe even Brian Anderson finally having a real breakout half.
But the real X-Factor of the team? Gavin Floyd.
He can either be unhittable in the second half or completely fall apart. He was the biggest surprise for the Sox coming out of the gate, but it's up to him to maintain his success. As everyone's said, Gavin's a flyball pitcher and that didn't serve him well down at Texas last Friday. Will he be able to win at Comiskey?
"Let's cinch it up and hunker down..."
Nothing is easy from here on out. Everyone's gunning for the Sox: the teams in the Central division, their potential postseason opponents (watch out for the Angels), the prognosticators who picked everyone but the Sox, and the people who just think we're destined to fail (paging Jay Mariotti).
It's going to be a real fight to the finish.
Thank goodness these are the Fighting Sox, ay?
Until next time, keep waving the Pennant.