One of baseball’s inherent contradictions is that this most individual and intensely quantified of games is also a team sport so subject to the intangible of “chemistry”–that vague, all-encompassing term applied when things go inexplicably well and a group of players becomes a unit. Sometimes a good team matures and comes together, as the young White Sox did last year; other times, a team simply enjoys a one-year blessing. The 1998 Cubs were an example, the 1990 Cincinnati Reds a more spectacular one, the “Miracle” New York Mets of 1969 the most painful of all from a Chicago fan’s point of view. There is an aura or, to be more prosaic, a confidence that a winning team exudes. It can sometimes be captured in statistics–a team wins because it learns discipline at the plate or because the pitchers stop walking batters–but it sometimes can only be hinted at, as in fictional depictions of baseball like Bang the Drum Slowly.
Stats mavens like Bill James have tried to generate an image of this phenomenon from run-projection and win-projection formulas, calculating from hits and outs how many runs a team should have scored, and from runs scored and surrendered how many games it should have won. When a team scores more runs or wins more games than it should have, it usually suffers the opposite fate the next year–thanks to the bane of every hot player or team, the law of averages. But however useful, these calculations don’t reveal what triggered the team’s success in the first place. That’s why the baseball manager is assigned such mystical powers; he seems to be pushing the right buttons when pinch hitters come through, when bench players deliver in the clutch, and when forgotten pitchers rise to the occasion. Managers are expected to control things that are sometimes simply plucked from the air.
The White Sox came into this season with every reason to expect more than the American League-leading 95 wins they amassed last year. They had speed and patience at the top of the order in Ray Durham and Jose Valentin. The heart of the order–Frank Thomas, Magglio Ordonez, Paul Konerko, and Carlos Lee–was powerful. In Herbert Perry and Harold Baines they had skilled role players to fill out the lineup, and in Chris Singleton and the newly acquired Royce Clayton good gloves. The Sox scored runs in bundles last year, but it wasn’t lucky hitting that did the job; they simply got guys on base and drove them in. The defense wasn’t great, but Clayton figured to improve that area this year. The pitching likewise figured to be better. Cal Eldred and James Baldwin were coming off arm surgery, but the Sox made the excellent move of exchanging Mike Sirotka for David Wells, a true ace whose winning attitude offered an inoculation against complacency. The bull pen was back intact, aside from the minor switch of Antonio Osuna replacing Bill Simas in middle relief.
The Sox still should win the AL Central–it’s a long season, after all–but so far things haven’t worked out as planned. The Sox played inspired baseball against their archrivals, the Cleveland Indians, with Wells beating them on opening day in Cleveland and the Sox sweeping them in a three-game set here in Chicago. But otherwise the Sox have looked, if not exactly lethargic, then uninspired. They were swept at home by the Detroit Tigers, in Minnesota by the Twins, and again at home by the Twins last weekend. The Sox have lacked the swagger they displayed early last year when they suddenly came of age. This has been most noticeable against the Twins, who have now beaten the Sox six times without a loss. Minnesota is a young team, less talented than the Sox, that’s catching the league by surprise much the way the Sox did last year. The Twins have played like a team with something to prove, the Sox like a team with high expectations trying to repeat itself. That’s a completely different mind-set, and a hump the Sox have yet to get over.
Those three losses at home to the Tigers could have happened to anybody. After the Sox swept the Indians they were four and four and looked ready to take on the league. But then they dropped three in Minnesota. The Sox went on to Detroit and staged a nice late-inning comeback, but Kelly Wunsch gave up a game-winning homer to Tony Clark–who has always given the Sox fits. Though the Sox won the next night they didn’t seem out of their funk until Wells won the rubber game of the three-game set. That game, a week ago Thursday, was everything the Sox got Wells for. After a couple of poor performances–one of them against Detroit in which he gave up a couple of critical hits on 0-2 counts–Wells said he would bury the Tigers next time he saw them and he did. Going the distance he threw a scant 100 pitches, an amazing 81 of them strikes, and in the end even dominated manager Jerry Manuel, all but chasing him from the mound when Manuel came out after Wells got into a little jam with two out in the ninth.
The Sox got Wells to be their ace, to set an example, and as they returned home there was every hope that his performance would launch a winning streak. Jim Parque, the Sox pitcher most in need of Wells’s assertive guidance in the early going, went the next night, last Friday, against the Twins. Parque had struggled in his first three outings, cementing his reputation as a soft, finesse pitcher with a tendency to give out after five innings. The Sox gave him a 1-0 lead in the first against the Twins but in the second he surrendered a home run to David Ortiz. Then he settled down–until the sixth, of course. The Twins scored three runs in that frame, and while Parque weathered the storm and finished the game–a moral victory that portends better days ahead–in the short term it was still a 4-1 loss.
The next day James Baldwin made his first start of the season, and he looked good. If anything, his motion seemed more fluid than last year, when he sometimes seemed to catapult the ball toward home plate. Yet the Twins seized the initiative early and never let it go. Torii Hunter, in his first at-bat since coming off the disabled list, homered in the second. The Sox got the run back in the bottom half on a double by Konerko and a clutch two-out single by Perry, but Baldwin gave up a single and a Corey Koskie homer to lead off the fourth. This happened immediately after the Sox had put two men on in the third only to see Thomas pop up a 3-0 pitch (he slammed his bat against the ground in anger) and Ordonez hit a liner directly at right fielder Matt Lawton. The momentum changed the way it does with a fumble recovery in a football game. The Sox scored in the fourth on a wind-blown error by Minnesota shortstop Cristian Guzman and another hit by Perry, and tied the game in the sixth on a homer by Konerko. But again the Sox lost–this time when Clayton’s throw to first for a potential inning-ending double play went into the dirt, allowing a runner on third to score. It was the sort of break that typically went the Sox’ way a year ago.
Having lost to Brad Radke and Eric Milton, two of the Twins’ best pitchers, the Sox then had to face Joe Mays, a young change-up pitcher who has tied them in knots every time he’s faced them while struggling against the rest of the league. That’s the sort of roll the Sox have been on this season, and their fortunes stayed true to form. The Sox went up right away on a two-out single by Konerko in the first, but starter Rocky Biddle gave the run back in the fourth. Biddle, who has long, pointy sideburns that connect to a goatee and an array of sharp-breaking pitches to match, had two out and a 1-2 count on Doug Mientkiewicz, but then got too fine and let the count go full, giving the linebacker-size Ortiz a running start off first base. Mientkiewicz smacked one into the gap in right center, and Ortiz–who couldn’t possibly have scored from first otherwise–rumbled around to tie the game. The Sox went back in front in the bottom of the inning on sound station-to-station baseball: a walk to Konerko, a Perry single, a Singleton sacrifice, and a sacrifice fly by new catcher Sandy Alomar Jr. But Biddle let the Twins tie it again on their next at-bats when a leadoff walk came around to score. The Sox had a scoring chance in the seventh, with runners on second and third and Thomas up, but he took a 3-1 strike then grounded to short. His failure seemed to signal another shift in momentum. Keith Foulke, the Sox’ bull pen ace, came on in the top of the eighth, and his first two pitches were a fastball Koskie hit for a double off the right-field fence and a change-up Ortiz drilled into the right-field seats. The Sox never threatened after that.
Lawton, Koskie, Ortiz, Hunter, and Mientkiewicz: what a bunch of no-names (if any Mientkiewicz can be called a no-name). Yet like the Sox’ sudden stars of last year–Lee and Konerko and Perry–they’ve established themselves by leaving the other team reeling. The Twins, who have been waiting for years for these kids to arrive, left town Sunday with a record of 14-3, the best in baseball, while the Sox fell to 6-11. The Twins made baseball seem like a game of initiative and momentum, just as the Sox did last year. With much the same talent, this year’s Sox weren’t in sync: hitting when they weren’t pitching and pitching when they weren’t hitting. They could make ready excuses–as disciplined hitters they seemed to be struggling more than most with the heightened new strike zone being enforced this year–but what it came down to was having to deal with their own altered fortunes. They were no longer upstarts but favorites, expectations raised by even the team’s marketing campaign, which has stated in no uncertain terms, “It’s time.”
The Sox know they have the talent but they’re waiting for it to show. Over 162 games it should. But for now they look like a team playing not to lose rather than to win. That’s no way to impress anyone from game to game–certainly not kid opponents trying to make names for themselves. As the Sox well know.