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Smash Opening

If the Sox can be that good, they don't need to be lucky.

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Fuck luck! This year's White Sox are out to be just damn good.

There's no denying that the White Sox were lucky last year. Even the most arrogant Sox fan would have to admit as much after reading the team's entry in Baseball Prospectus, the annual guidebook devoted to exhaustive statistical analysis. BP studies the number of runs the team should have scored and allowed given the actual hits and walks, and the number of games it should have won given the actual runs scored and allowed. It concludes the Sox should have won 90 games instead of 99 during last year's regular season, and that's not to mention the extended run of freak events and bad calls in their favor during the playoffs, when manager Ozzie Guillen admitted, "I'd rather be lucky than good."

"The White Sox were lucky by any reasonable definition of the term," BP declares. "Just as certainly, however, they were a far better team than anyone gave them credit for." There were legitimate reasons the Sox surpassed expectations, and they had more to do with improved defense and execution than with Guillen's "small ball" strategy. That brings us to this year's White Sox.

General manager Ken Williams had every right to be proud of the championship team he put together, yet in his off-season moves even he seemed to acknowledge that luck played a significant role. Instead of standing pat with fan favorites--much as the Boston Red Sox did the previous year, basking in the afterglow of their curse-killing title--he traded the popular Aaron Rowand to the Philadelphia Phillies for Jim Thome, an upgrade on thumper Frank Thomas because he's slightly younger and slightly less injury-prone and especially because as a left-handed hitter he balances Paul Konerko and Jermaine Dye. Williams also brought in Javier Vazquez, a pitcher capable of winning 20 games, for phenom Chris Young. It was a dear price, for Young may soon put together seasons of 30 homers and 30 steals with the Arizona Diamondbacks, but it reflects Williams's emphasis on pitching.

"You can't win without pitching, and hopefully ours stays healthy," Williams said before Sunday's opening-night game at White Sox Park. "That's our plan, and we're going to stick with it." Talented as he is, Vazquez seemed almost redundant, though he pushed Brandon McCarthy, who displayed promise starting last season, back to the bullpen. "I don't believe there is such a thing as an excess of pitching," Williams explained, adding that he was out to "insulate ourselves against the unforeseen."

In other words, against bad luck. Any gambler knows that luck can be expected to even out over time; this year it could swing against the Sox. So Williams hopes he's put together a team strong enough to weather a minor run of bad luck. Guillen seems to think he has. He said before the opener, "I think, right now, on this particular day, we have a better ball club than we had a year ago."

Sunday's opener seemed designed to test that belief on many fronts. For the prestige of starting the entire baseball season at home in a nationally televised game, the Sox had to play on the first night of daylight savings time. Last season opened on a sparkling, warm, and glorious afternoon; this time the weather was raw and got even worse when the sun went down. The Sox won a year ago 1-0, on a masterful performance by Mark Buehrle against the young, inexperienced Cleveland Indians. It was the first of 35 one-run wins against only 19 losses. The Sox dominated the Indians 14-5 in head-to-head play last year, and nine of those games, all Sox wins, were decided by one run. That sort of good fortune can't last. The Tribe got better as the season went on and chased the Sox to the wire, and they came back for another opener at Sox Park a year older and having just won an American League-high 20 games in spring training. In fact, Baseball Prospectus's panel of experts picked this year's Indians to win the AL Central Division.

On opening night the Sox had to contend with the adulation and festivities surrounding their first home game since they won the World Series in Houston last October. The crowd of 38,802 treated each player as a folk hero as he emerged from the dugout. Dye, Konerko, and Joe Crede were greeted with roars as they ran sprints before the game, and even pitching coach Don Cooper was saluted with shouts of "Coop!" as he walked out to oversee Buehrle's warm-up session in the bullpen. After a sluggish spring training, the Sox had shown signs of turning it on in the last week of exhibitions, led by Thome's Cactus League-leading six homers--all hit over the last seven games. Now even the players seemed awestruck as the new championship banners were unveiled on the light standards beyond the bleachers, many of them standing on the field and watching under the pretense of taking a break between sprints. But when the game began the Sox looked crisp, especially Buehrle, and they took a three-run lead in the third by pouncing on the Indians' bullpen after starter C.C. Sabathia left with an abdominal injury.

In the fourth inning, however, the expected bad luck struck. Cleveland's slow-footed Travis Hafner tried to score from first on a double, and Tadahito Iguchi would have had him at the plate but his relay took a bad hop over A.J. Pierzynski's mitt. Eduardo Perez followed with a game-tying homer into the Sox bullpen. Then a lightning bolt flashed and the rain came down--torrents that halted play.

The Sox didn't want to squander the sold-out crowd, and reportedly the players preferred to wait out the rain than play a makeup on a scheduled open Monday, so everyone settled in as "rain-delay theater" featured the 2005 World Series on the scoreboard TV. Sox fans could again relive their amazing run of luck in the playoffs: the muffs by opposing second basemen Tony Graffanino and Craig Biggio, Pierzynski's steal of first and his uncalled catcher's interference, Dye's foul ball ruled a hit-by-pitch and his seeing-eye single to drive in the only run in the fourth and final game of the Series. When Juan Uribe was seen making the play on the final out, fans ringing the concourse under the shelter of the grandstand cheered.

After a three-hour delay play resumed and the Sox just plain crushed the Indians on skill--no luck involved. Thome homered in a three-run fourth, and the Sox added three more runs in the fifth and another in the sixth, while McCarthy relieved Buehrle with three perfect innings before turning the game over to the rest of the bullpen to mop up. The Sox won, 10-4, and they outplayed the Indians on every front.

If the Sox get anything resembling last year's performances out of leadoff man Scott Podsednik and bullpen closer Bobby Jenks, and if they avoid crippling injuries, they will indeed be better than they were a year ago. That means I'm picking them to repeat, over the Yankees, Athletics, and Angels, with the Cardinals prevailing in the National League over the Phillies, Astros, (Cubs third), and Padres. Give me the Sox in the World Series, but not without that little last dollop of luck it takes to win it all.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Jonathan Daniel/Getty Images.

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