The sports-talk radio hosts are fond of speculating on whether "Good Frank" or "Bad Frank" will show up this year. That is, will Frank Thomas have an MVP-caliber campaign, as he had annually through 1997 and again in 2000, or a disappointing season like the ones in 1998 and '99, and then last year when he was injured? Thomas's leadership qualities are often questioned in the media, but for better or worse, the way the White Sox play as a team has reflected the uneven, all-or-nothing quality of his career. So one can wonder as well whether the "Good Sox" or "Bad Sox" will show up; they take turns from year to year--the surprising 2000 team making the playoffs and last year's also-rans stumbling out of the starting gate--and even from day to day.
I went out to Comiskey Park last Thursday full of high hopes and eager to see Jon Rauch, the team's cornstalk-high pitching phenom. At 6-11, Rauch is the tallest player in major-league history, topping Randy Johnson by an inch; but as a pitcher he isn't as intimidating as the Arizona Diamondbacks' Big Unit. The lefty Johnson throws sidearm across his body with a motion that must make left-handed hitters feel he's trying to throw strikes right through their navels. The right-handed Rauch, by contrast, brings his hands high over his head, kicks, and then tilts to the left in mid-delivery, so that his arm comes straight overhand. For all his size he's not a flamethrower; instead, he puts that overhand motion to use with a curveball that breaks almost straight down. But the same delivery can leave his fastball with little movement left to right. On this night Rauch was facing the Seattle Mariners, whose efficient lineup mixes power with speed, and the lack of movement on his fastball was critical. He plunked pesky leadoff hitter Ichiro Suzuki in the thigh with his first pitch, and Bret Boone whacked the very next offering--a high straight fastball on the outside corner--into the right-field seats. Mike Cameron, a product of the White Sox farm system long ago traded for Paul Konerko, hit a fastball to straightaway center for back-to-back homers, and Rauch was on his way back to being the tallest player in the minors. A double, an error, a single, a bunt single, and another single followed before Rauch got the last hitter in the order to hit a sacrifice fly to right field for the first out, and Seattle led 6-0. Manager Jerry Manuel had seen enough. He summoned the diminutive Jim Parque, the Jeff to Rauch's Mutt, from the bull pen. But Parque was destined to suffer the same fate as Rauch--both in surrendering back-to-back homers to Boone and Cameron before the first inning was over and in having his ticket punched to Triple-A Charlotte before the night was through. When the top of the first finally came to an end the Mariners were up by ten runs, with eight of them charged to Rauch, five earned, in his third of an inning. He sat in the dugout looking shell-shocked. The Bad Sox had shown up, with their young and suspect pitching, and the final score was 15-4.
The paltry 12,891 in the stands were privileged, however, to see Cameron clobber two more homers to become just the 13th player in major-league history to hit four in a game and only the fifth to do it in consecutive plate appearances. It was a feat far rarer than a perfect game, and it was only the fifth inning! Despite the cold the fans stayed on to see if Cameron would become the first batter ever to hit five. But reliever Mike Porzio grazed him in the seventh--"Boo!" went the fans--and in the ninth, after Jeff Cirillo's leadoff homer guaranteed Cameron would get another shot, he hit a hard liner deep to right off Porzio that Magglio Ordoñez ran down on the warning track. It was the most amazing hitting performance anyone had ever seen--the guy hit everything right on the button--and Cameron got appreciative applause as he playfully scuffed his feet past first base and returned to the dugout. By contrast, Konerko, the man the Sox traded for Cameron in the winter of 1998, saw his 18-game hitting streak end because he couldn't beat out a grounder hit deep in the hole between third and short; Carlos Guillen threw him out with a leaping throw from short left field, and it wasn't even close.
Things have gone either bad or good for the Sox in rather absolute terms this season--through Sunday, only 7 of their 30 games had been decided by two runs or less--but it's been much more feast than famine. Plainly put, they've beaten the snot out of people, averaging over six runs a game in amassing a 19-12 record that put them only a half game behind the Minnesota Twins in the American League Central. The attack has been led by the revitalized Kenny Lofton, a bargain-basement free-agent pickup who fell into the lap of general manager Kenny Williams over the winter, and who's established himself as an MVP candidate by hitting .350 with an on-base percentage well in excess of .400. With Lofton, Ray Durham, and Thomas all getting on base about 40 percent of the time, there have almost always been runners for the booming bats behind them--Ordonez, Konerko, Jose Valentin, and Carlos Lee--and they've pounded the runs home. With the club scoring runs in droves, the pitching has needed to be merely proficient to succeed.
On April 22, a critical early season stretch of 13 games began against the archrival Cleveland Indians, the Mariners, and the Oakland Athletics--all among the best teams in the league. Ace Mark Buehrle lost the first game 4-2, but in what was probably the most important game of the year thus far, Todd Ritchie outdueled Cleveland ace Bartolo Colon to win 5-1. The Sox went on to win three of four against the Tribe, and a week later the first two games of the Comiskey series with the Mariners before getting clobbered in the finale. If that debacle rattled the confidence of Sox fans--play had to be halted in the calamitous first inning when a broken broom handle was thrown into the outfield--it seemed to have little effect on the Sox themselves.
Would the shellacking send the Sox into a funk against the A's, who'd beaten them ten straight times going back to early last year and had just swept a three-game series in Oakland, where the Sox were outscored 32-5? (Talk about being awful when you're bad!) No, in that first game last weekend, Buehrle bounced back from the pounding he'd got in Oakland for a 6-1 win that somehow characterized this year's Sox. They lack the chip-on-the-shoulder determination of the 2000 team, but also the hangdog look of last year's team, which worked its way back from a horrendous start to a respectable 83-79 finish. Instead there's a calm, day-to-day confidence, tempered by the woes of last season, that they're going to get theirs: if they don't score now they'll score next inning, and if they don't win today, then, no matter how humiliating the score was, they'll win tomorrow.
There's a pleasant, veteran feel to the Sox clubhouse, and it was apparent before last Saturday's game with the A's. The Sox finished up batting practice and, while the A's took the field, gathered in the clubhouse to watch the Kentucky Derby, teasing one another about their picks in a team pool. It might have been an unconventional way to prepare to face the other team's ace pitcher, Tim Hudson, who entered the game with an impressive 1.82 earned run average, but no harm done. Hudson worked briskly through the order once, Lofton's pair of hits making him the only Sox base runner over the first three innings. Meanwhile, Ritchie, whose unusual delivery finds his right arm lashing behind his body like a tiger's tail before its pounce, was getting knocked around, though the only run he allowed was Randy Velarde's homer in the first. Thomas opened the fourth with a walk, Ordonez fought off a fastball to bloop a single into center, and Konerko lined another fastball into left to load the bases. Valentin took a change-up for a strike, then jumped on a high fastball and whacked it off the wall in center to clear the bases. Valentin scored on a Lee sacrifice fly to put the Sox up 4-1. Durham and Oakland leadoff man Jeremy Giambi exchanged solo homers in the fifth, and in the seventh the Sox put it away, taking advantage of an error and three walks to push five runs across. The Sox won 10-2, tagging Hudson with nine of the runs.
It's worth noting that a key element in the big seventh inning was Durham giving himself up to bunt runners to second and third--this after homering in his previous at bat. Thomas was then intentionally walked, Ordonez singled home a couple of runs, Konerko walked, and Valentin singled home two more to give him five RBIs for the night. But the most important play of the game might have been a tremendous catch by Lee, who stole a home run from Carlos Pena by stabbing a fly above the fence in left to end the sixth inning and preserve what was then a 5-2 lead. I think Lofton deserves some of the credit for Lee's play: Each of Cameron's four home runs two nights before had gone out to center field, and Lofton fought them right up to the fence. That effort must have had an effect on Lee, who up to now has had a reputation as a bit of a layabout in the field.
Sunday the A's got one back, beating the Sox and the settled-down Dan Wright 3-2, with Oakland closer Billy Koch retiring Thomas, Ordonez, and Konerko in order in the bottom of the ninth. Despite the loss, which robbed the Sox of the pleasure of sweeping the A's right back, the Sox survived their critical 13-game stretch at 7-6, winning three of the four series. True, the Sox were a mere 2-2 in one-run games and 3-4 in games decided by two runs or fewer--not an auspicious sign for the playoffs. But their confidence that they were going to get theirs in the end was rubbing off on their fans.
I predict that when the regular season ends Konerko will have more homers, more RBIs, and a higher batting average than Cameron. Then we'll see who goes deeper into the playoffs.