The baseball season is off to a strange start, in which opposites collide and throw sparks. In the six games I’ve scored this young season, home runs were a team’s first hit seven times. Now, that includes the Wrigley Field outing of the Montreal Expos’ Bob Sebra, who gave up a homer to Leon Durham to lead off the second inning, and the season debut of Neil Allen, who pitched Opening Day in Comiskey Park for the White Sox, giving up a homer to the first man he faced. It also includes last Sunday’s game between the Sox and the Toronto Blue Jays, in which both the Sox’ Jose DeLeon and the Jays’ Jimmy Key allowed homers in the first inning. Yet it also includes outings by the Detroit Tigers’ Frank Tanana, who went four and a third innings against Allen before giving up a homer to Tim Hulett, the Saint Louis Cardinals’ Danny Cox, who took a no-hitter into the sixth inning before making a mistake to Ryne Sandberg, and the Sox’ Floyd Bannister, who last Saturday night pitched perfectly for four and a third innings before the sky fell in, beginning with Jesse Barfield’s home run. When one also considers that, in DeLeon’s case, the first-inning homer was the only hit he allowed for over six innings, the evidence begins to pile up. Not that the evidence proves anything–baseball trivia doesn’t have to prove anything; if it did it wouldn’t be trivial–but I simply can’t remember a time when so many games I was beginning to get excited about were altered so abruptly, usually for the worse.
As a team, the Chicago White Sox are good pitch, no hit. That was the case last year, and it is the case again this year–only more so with the absence of the injured Harold Baines. It’s still early, the first statistics are only just beginning to appear in the newspapers, and some of the figures are a bit skewed (the Milwaukee Brewers, as a team, are hitting .302), but already the Sox have picked up where they left off last October, trailing the rest of the American League in batting average. In fact, their .220 average trails the 13th-placed team by a full ten points, and, as one might expect, they also have scored fewer runs than any team in the league. They haven’t averaged three earned runs a game this season, so while the pitching has been dependable–allowing fewer than four earned runs a game–the results have been predictable. The Sox left town earlier this week already four games below .500, mired in fifth place, only a game and a half out of last.
The thinking, then, on the White Sox, is that they’ll go only as far as the pitching takes them. Actually, the opposite is probably true–the Sox will improve only as much as the hitting improves–but it’s early in the season, and we’re right to concentrate on strengths, and the White Sox’ strengths so far have been demonstrated almost exclusively on the pitching mound.
Richard Dotson, we commented last time, appears to be in the process of becoming a leg pitcher after being an arm pitcher most of his career. Some pitchers–like Tom Seaver and Nolan Ryan–throw the ball with their legs (referring to the push and oomph the motion gives to the ball as they stride down the mound), while some are arm pitchers, like the San Diego Padres’ Lance McCullers. (The advantage in durability of one style over the other should be obvious.) Two years ago, Dotson’s upper body was so well muscled that he began to have problems with blood flow being cut off to the arm over the course of a few innings’ work. The Houston Astros’ J.R. Richard and the Cubs’ Dick Ruthven had similar problems: Richard almost died when a blood clot developed, Ruthven had surgery and never returned to form. For a pitcher to change his style at this late stage of his career is a major feat, and Dotson has thus far showed promise without great results. He has put on more weight, but most of it appears to be firm and below his waist. He strides down the mound more assertively now, lower to the ground, letting his legs do the work.
Last Friday’s outing, however, was typical: he threw the ball as hard and with as much movement as ever, but somehow the game got away. For six innings he shut out the Blue Jays, until he allowed two runs in the seventh to tie the score and take away any hopes of his earning the victory. The problem, they say, is that in the transformation from one sort of pitcher to another he lost the feel for his changeup, which used to be one of the best in the league. Can he regain the touch or find another pitch to replace it? The question provides the drama not only for Dotson’s career but for the White Sox’ season.
Last Saturday night, Floyd Bannister pitched as well as anyone I’d seen this season. Then, all at once, he pitched as poorly as anyone I’d seen, and I must confess that–ignoring the results–the difference between the two Floyds was imperceptible, just as it must be imperceptible to the coaches and to Bannister himself, because his history is one of erratic streaks. Quoting Don Zminda in The Great American Baseball Stat Book: “Looking at Bannister’s career, one sees two distinctly different kinds of seasons. In his bad years he has control problems and his ERA soars above the 4.00 mark; in his better years his control improves (he ‘shortens his stride’) and he gets the ERA down to around 3.50.”
Last Saturday, his control was impeccable. Through four innings he was perfect. He had good control of his pitches, he moved the ball up, down, in, out, and struck out four men in making the Blue Jays look sick. Then, leading off the fifth, George Bell hit the first pitch on a line to left field. Bannister–who has a beautiful motion not unlike Steve Carlton’s, with a softly bent right leg, toe pointed, that leads him down the mound and pulls the left arm after it–thought the no-hitter and the shutout were gone. He looked into the dirt of the pitching mound in his follow through.
Gary Redus, however, got to the ball quickly and made a tough out look easy. I was thinking perfect game; they are often marked by such strokes of luck. Then Bannister got behind Barfield 2-0, challenged him with a high fastball, and Barfield hit it on a line into the center-field bullpen. Willie Upshaw followed with a triple, Cecil Fielder with a double, and one out later Jeff DeWillis, the last man in the order, hit a curve ball into the left-field upper deck. Bannister”s reaction had something of pathos in it: completing his follow-through, he hung his head as he had on the ball hit by Bell, only this time he reached down with his bare left hand and patted the dirt of the mound, as if to get his bearings on the reality of how quickly his dream game had turned into a nightmare, a pitcher’s way of pinching himself. He was out of the game one batter later.
Jose DeLeon has, for the last few seasons, been one of the most promising pitchers’ in baseball–no lie, no exaggeration. He has an excellent fastball with a lot of movement, very good breaking stuff, and he changes speeds and moves the ball around well. He has also been a hard-luck Charlie. Two years ago, he lost 19 games for the last-place Pittsburgh Pirates, and he lost his confidence as well, winding up in the minors until the White Sox salvaged him last year. He may yet be Hawk Harrelson’s saving grace, his Seward’s Folly. Last Sunday afternoon, he came out throwing aspirin tablets, walked two men in the first inning but also got a rare double-play grounder (he throws a hard ball, lots of strikeouts, lots of pop outs and fly outs) before George Bell came to the plate. Bell had taken one of Bob James’s best fastballs into the left-field upper deck to win Friday night’s game, so DeLeon went against his early game plan and threw him a lot of slow, breaking stuff. Bell, however, took a 2-and-2 curveball and put it in the left-field stands, giving the Blue Jays a 2-0 lead in the first inning.
DeLeon makes it look easy; he has a high, pumping leg kick, not smooth but not jerky, and the balls seem to fly from his hand like pointed spears. After that early mistake, he retired nine men in a row. He walked two men in the fourth and another in the sixth, but his struggles against himself made it all the more apparent that the Blue Jays’ hitters offered him little challenge. The Sox’ Ivan Calderon replied in kind to Bell’s homer in the first–without the benefit of a man on base–and the Sox tied it in the sixth when they squeezed Carlton Fisk around on two first-pitch base hits by Tim Hulett and Fred Manrique. In the seventh, however, DeLeon walked two more men and, with two out, fell behind Tony Fernandez. All logic called on him to blow the light-hitting Fernandez away with a fastball, but he hadn’t been getting the fastball over the plate and came with a breaking pitch, which Fernandez dumped into left field for a run, sending DeLeon out of the game. Back-to-back homers in the eighth made the score 5-2.
Three fairly well pitched games by the Sox’ three best starters, yet they came away with only one win at home, and not solely because they hadn’t hit well. When the Sox and Sox fans think well of themselves, they see these pitchers throwing no-hit ball for inning after inning, winning the game 1-0 or 2-1 on a stolen base and an error or a clutch home run by Fisk or Greg Walker, but for the moment the Sox’ dreams and reality are at odds, and well-pitched ball games are turning into embarrassing losses. We can only hope that, when the season settles down into the long grind, the Sox’ pitchers will settle into a more consistent groove, and that–with the return of Harold Baines–the Sox’ hitting will settle into something–anything at all.