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White Sox fans used the All-Star break as a three-day opportunity to talk themselves into some courage. The Sox had the best record in baseball at 55-32, as everyone pointed out. They were ten and a half games ahead of the Cleveland Indians in the American League Central Division. If they played barely .500 baseball the rest of the way, 38-37, they would finish 93-69, meaning the Indians would have to go 49-27 to catch them–unlikely, in that Cleveland had just dealt slugger David Justice to the New York Yankees in a trade that was a sort of half surrender, half challenge to the rest of the team on the part of the Cleveland front office. Even if the Indians did tie the Sox at 93 wins both teams probably would make the playoffs, and the Sox would claim the division title with the better head-to-head record–they led the Indians 7-3 in the season series with only three September games in Cleveland remaining between them.

Of course, Chicago baseball fans of a certain age can recall making the same rosy projections for the Cubs in 1969, and for both Chicago baseball teams midway through the summer of 1977. It’s a long season, and over the course of 162 games the best team does usually rise to the top. Is that really the Sox this year?

The team appeared slump proof at the plate, where batting coach Von Joshua’s slashing style and emphasis on patience have made the Sox fearsome hitters from the top of the order to the bottom. But the pitching, as good as it had been, remained slightly suspect. Among James Baldwin, Mike Sirotka, and Jim Parque, none had ever put together a complete big-league season of success. Even as Cal Eldred joined Baldwin as a ten-game winner in the first half, he was trying to get through a full season for the first time in three years. The disappointing Kip Wells had been sent back to the minors and replaced by Jon Garland, who at 20 became the youngest player in the majors and struggled in his first outings. Keith Foulke and Bobby Howry had both had periods of ineffectiveness while passing the closer’s job back and forth.

In short, there was cause for concern even before the Cubs rallied to take the last two games of their three-game series with the Sox at Wrigley Field right before the break, thumping Baldwin and Eldred in the process. Sox fans did their best to shrug off those defeats. When the Sox prepared to take the field for the first game back at Comiskey Park a week ago Thursday, one big fat guy in the grandstand behind home plate started yelling at everyone around him to stand up and cheer, just as a full house of 40,000 fans had roared when the Sox returned home from sweeping the Indians and Yankees on the road back in June. And it worked; soon, most everyone in the lower deck was standing and cheering the Sox. Yet the visiting Saint Louis Cardinals, holding first place themselves in the National League Central, opened the game with Edgar Renteria and Fernando Tatis slugging first-inning homers off Sirotka, and that put an ominous slant on things. In the press box, Phil Arvia of the Daily Southtown looked up at the scoreboard and said in mock panic, “And the Indians are winning! The lead’s down to nine and a half!” Many Sox fans were no doubt thinking the same thought, and without a hint of irony.

It was a brutal start to the second half. Sirotka, who had nothing, gave up three more runs in the third and then another homer to Tatis–this one with a man on–before leaving in the fourth with the Sox down 7-0. Meanwhile, Saint Louis starter Andy Benes, a typical power pitcher, worked out of jams in the first two innings and got progressively stronger. It was 8-0 before the Sox even scored, in the sixth, and then the Cards batted around in the seventh. The Sox nibbled away like rats in an abandoned house against the Cards’ bull pen, including a homer by Chris Singleton in the eighth to give the fans a little fireworks, but the final score was 13-5.

Frank Thomas has grown stronger all season. Friday night, in the second game of the series, he staked Eldred to a 2-0 lead with a first-inning homer and suddenly all was well again. But wellness can be fleeting. The Sox’ porous defense, a persistent weakness, gave up an unearned run in the third, and the Cards’ Jim Edmonds homered to tie the game in the fifth. Only a few pitches later, Eldred left the game with shooting pains in his pitching arm. Hoping for the best long-term, the Sox waited until Eldred threw between starts this week to determine his status, but in the short term the bull pen gave them no cause for hope. Kelly Wunsch, Sean Lowe, and Howry were all slapped around by the Cards, and the Sox had to add a couple of meaningless runs in the bottom of the ninth just to make the final 9-4. Counting the two losses to the Cubs before the break, they had dropped four in a row for the first time since early May, and their lead over the Indians was down to eight and a half.

If Sox fans were getting a little anxious, the Sox themselves were maintaining a stoic calm. Manager Jerry Manuel seemed to take the skid as some sort of character-building rite of passage. “These are stretches over the course of 162 games you’re going to go through,” he said, with a backward construction almost like Yoda from the Star Wars movies. Perhaps the Sox were emboldened by the starter they had lined up for Saturday’s third and final game of the series: scrappy little lefty Jim Parque, who makes up in attitude what he lacks in overpowering stuff on the mound. It’s an attitude that seems to rub off on the team, for the Sox have given Parque the best run support of any starting pitcher in the majors this season. This game was no exception, even though the Sox were facing Saint Louis ace Darryl Kile. Again, Thomas gave Parque a lead right away with a first-inning homer, this one a three-run shot. Parque needed it, as he had already given up a run in the first and allowed another in the second. Still, he worked the edges of the plate until they were frayed, walked guys, but wouldn’t give in, and though the Sox scored two more in the fourth and Parque gave them right back in the fifth, he also plugged Tatis for his team-leading seventh hit batter of the season, just to show the Cards who was boss. Kile responded in kind by plugging Magglio Ordo–ez in the bottom of the frame, a tit-for-tat if ever there was one as Ordo–ez, like Tatis, was hitting cleanup. But Kile was made to pay in the best way possible, as the Sox pushed Ordo–ez around to score to make it 6-4. In the seventh, the Sox finally exploded the way they always seem to in Parque’s starts, scoring nine runs to put the game away–Thomas drove in six runs on the night–and added the coup de grace when Jesus Pena went head-hunting against the Cards’ Eduardo Perez and hit him with two out in the ninth. The Sox had fought their way out of the doldrums, just as they’d done in April in their beanbrawl with the Detroit Tigers–another game that involved Parque. He was out of this one by the time the Sox blew it open, but he set the prevailing tone and earned the win, his ninth of the season, with a typically scruffy three-run, five-inning performance–not pretty, just effective enough. He’s a tough little son of a bitch, and–who knows?–if the Sox have to win one game, he might be their best choice.

With the All-Star break dictating an unusual change of series in mid-weekend, the Milwaukee Brewers came to town on Sunday. Again the Sox scored three early runs, but again the starting pitcher, Baldwin, seemed determined to give them back. The team’s de facto ace, Baldwin was at the core of its pitching concerns. For all his stuff and talent, he’s had a Jekyll and Hyde career, mixing atrocious first halves with stunning second halves. This year he finally got the first half right, earning 11 wins, but he finished with a series of bad outings, giving rise to fears that he might simply have reversed his usual pattern and the deluge was under way. Yet on Sunday he seemed to put his season back on track. He gave up a few homers but walked no one until he tired late, meaning that none of the homers was crushing. He held on until the middle innings, when with the score tied at 3-3 and the bases loaded, Thomas took a big swing on an inside pitch and hit a flare into short right that plopped in front of Jeromy Burnitz to score two runs. An inning later the Brewers worked around Thomas, walking him to load the bases, and Ordo–ez hit a high fastball on a line into the left-field seats for a grand slam, a crushing blow that made the score 9-3. Ordo–ez added a solo homer to give him six RBIs in the game, and the Sox cruised home, 11-5. Newly arrived phenom Mark Buehrle, a left-hander with a good array of breaking pitches and a decent fastball, mopped up and almost retired the side in order in the ninth, though an infield hit with two out led to a mild Milwaukee rally.

If sink or swim has worked so far for Manuel and general manager Ron Schueler, why change now? Manuel refused to panic when Sirotka got bombed in the first game of the second half. “We just have to get starting pitching. That’s our key,” Manuel said. “You have to pitch well. You have to give yourself a chance to win the ball game.” Asked if Schueler needed to seek help through a trade, he said, “I don’t think we need another starter. We need to get our starters together.”

By the end of the weekend the Sox had righted themselves, even if the pitching overall didn’t exactly inspire confidence, and the lead was back to nine and a half games, giving them a magic number–dare I say it?–of 43. Much has been said and written about a possible slogan for this year’s Sox, on the order of 1977’s South Side Hit Men and 1983’s Winnin’ Ugly bunch. “Kids II Men” has been suggested, as well as TV announcer Ken “Hawk” Harrelson’s less wholesome mantra, “This team has stones.” Me, I think anything will do but that old baseball saw that keeps buzzing in the back of my head: “Young pitchers will break your heart.” i