Well, well, well. Fresh off of a five-game losing streak, the ailing Chicago White Sox managed to win a few big ones down the final stretch!
Thursday afternoon, the Tampa Bay Rays will play host to the Sox in the first of what will likely be an exciting five-game series that concludes (if necessary) next Wednesday back in Tampa.
What issues should be identified before beginning this series? Let's take a look.
1. What happened to Chicago's bullpen?
There is just no way that the situation can go unaddressed. Since the All-Star break, the White Sox bullpen has been completely awful, and even the once-reliable Bobby Jenks has stumbled across the finish line.
If the Sox can have their way with the Rays' hitters (which is unlikely), then perhaps World Series champion manager Ozzie Guillen can allow the starters to stay in as long as needed.
Old school pitchers never give up the ball late in the game, and the White Sox should certainly think about kicking it old-school, circa 2005. I'm sure that Mark Buehrle would be in favor of such an idea and would be glad to also make a relief appearance, say, in the 14th inning of Game Three.
2. Can the Sox steal a road game?
Good news: Chicago is 54-28 at home this season
Bad news: Tampa has home-field advantage in the series
Bottom Line: To win the series, the Sox have to wreck Game One or Two. I'm sure they will be happy to take a split and play the next two games at The Cell.
3. Where have you gone, Carlos Quentin?
The sidelined former MVP candidate is unlikely (along with Joe Crede) to suit up for any playoff games. What implications will arise from this in the playoffs? Dewayne Wise, Nick Swisher, Brian Anderson: It is time to step up and win the job. My money is on Swisher, before it is all said and done, but Ozzie is a DW fan as of late.
4. Will defense win the series?
Everyone say it together: "Good pitching beats good hitting." However, how good can a pitcher be with a poor defense behind him? In the tie-breaking win over Minnesota, the Sox actually flashed a little leather, and that ultimately made the difference in the 1-0 win.
It isn't that Chicago is poor defensively. The SS/2B combo of Orlando Cabrera and Alexei Ramirez is as good as it gets in the game today, and Juan Uribe has won the 3B job with his cannon of an arm. A.J. Pierzynski can't throw, but he blocks well and calls a heck of a game, and even Paul Konerko can pick it over at first.
Yet, the outfield is aging. Jermaine Dye has an arm, but he doesn't look like the JD we saw in April and May, and he has had trouble tracking down high flyballs to the gap and the right-field corner. Ken Griffey is old, but boy, he just doesn't make mistakes in his routes.
Let's compare the teams, player-by-player, and see what results from it.
C: A.J. Pierzynski vs. Dioner Navarro
A.J. has the experience of catching the biggest games and always seems to find a way to get involved in the big play. Navarro was named over A.J. to the All Star team but really didn't deserve the nod.
1B: Paul Konerko vs. Carlos Pena
Carlos Pena is the best power hitter that nobody knows about...Yet.
2B: Alexei Ramirez vs. Akinori Iwamura
As painful as it is for a Cub-hater like myself to admit, Ramirez is the next Alfonso Soriano, no doubt in my mind.
SS: Orlando Cabrera vs. Jason Bartlett
Bartlett does a lot to help the Rays win, but O.C. is the more complete player, who plays the perfect style of baseball to win playoff games.
3B: Juan Uribe vs. Evan Longoria
LF: Dewayne Wise vs. Carl Crawford
Crawford is returning from hand surgery, but he wouldn't play unless he was ready. Even if he isn't ready, he's still probably better than Wise.
CF: Ken Griffey vs. B.J. Upton
I bet when Upton was a kid, he had Griffey posters on his wall. I also bet Ken Griffey wishes he could still cover as much ground as B.J. does on the carpet at Tropicana Field.
RF: Jermaine Dye vs. Gabe Gross
Yeah, Gabe Gross is the starting right fielder. I know, it surprised me, too.
DH: Jim Thome vs. Cliff Floyd
This just in: Jim Thome's homer from Tuesday has landed! Cliff has hurt the Sox in Tampa this season, but Thome hit a ball there in April that might have cleared all of the seats in right field had it not hit the catwalk. Yikes.
BN: Nick Swisher/Brian Anderson/Josh Fields vs. Eric Hinske/Ben Zobrist/Willy Aybar
I suppose that it will be nice to have someone like Swisher available off of the bench, but that's not why he was signed.
SP: Javier Vazquez vs. James Shields
"Big Game" James holds the fate of the White Sox in his right hand.
SP: Mark Buehrle vs. Scott Kazmir
Sorry, Met Fans, it's that time of year when you get to imagine the endless "what if's" that come from dreaming of Scott Kazmir staying with the team that drafted him.
SP: Gavin Floyd vs. Matt Garza
Like it or not, Floyd is quickly becoming the ace of the staff. Well, co-ace along with...
SP: John Danks vs. Andy Sonnanstine
...Johnny Danks, who consistently does his job, start after start, even without run support. Sonnanstine blew the Sox away in April, but that was a long, long time ago.
BP: Matt Thornton/Scott Linebrink/Octavio Dotel vs. David Price/J.P. Howell/Dan Wheeler
It's simple, really. If a game goes into extra innings, the White Sox will lose.
CL: Bobby Jenks vs. Troy Percival
Troy is old. Dress him up and call him a team leader, but he's old. I'll be honest, I thought he retired a few years ago.
Hitting: Advantage White Sox
Defense: Advantage Rays
Bench: Advantage Rays
Intangibles: Advantage White Sox
If you thought this series would go five games, you are right. If you thought this series would be neck-and-neck in all five games, you are right. If you thought the Rays would win the fifth and deciding game at home, you aren't right.
Intangibles win playoff games, and the White Sox have the experience and level-headedness to turn a sinking ship into a luxury cruiser. Tampa won the season series, 6-4, but that was before this just happened:
SOX IN FIVE.