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April 5, 2010

Game Story

White Sox Home Opener

by Christina Kahrl

A gorgeous April afternoon in the Cell in Chicago, with the temps in the 70s, and the Indians in town for Opening Day? It's a far sight removed from the Cubs opener where a friend turned blue, certainly. It was almost a pity that it was a Mark Buehrle start, given Buehrle's rep for fast work, but it was perhaps unsurprising that the South Side's southpaw of choice made fast work of the Tribe.

If Buehrle was an unsurprising selection to make his franchise-record eighth Opening Day start (breaking his tie with Billy Pierce), his opponent was a slight surprise. Jake Westbrook returning to the mound for the first time since May 2008; it was a single start after an initial stint on the DL, and broke up his streak of six consecutive quality starts going back to 2007. Of course, this is on an Opening Day on which Ben Sheets is making his first start after a year away, as was Shaun Marcum. Signs of the times, of course, but not all of these things are equal.

Westbrook certainly was not. If Buehrle was breaking a record for his team, Westbrook wound up tying a significantly less distinguished one for his, throwing four wild pitches to earn a spot with Sudden Sam McDowell (who did it twice) and Steve Hargan. Westbrook also managed to hit Carlos Quentin twice, around the knee and the hip. A big part of the problem early on seemed to be that Westbrook tried and failed to work away, but a first-inning Quentin double followed immediately by a first-pitch homer to right by Paul Konerko; you can credit Konerko and Quentin for working with what they were given, and blame Westbrook for missing his spots. Westbrook's later pair of misses inside on Quentin plus four walks in four frames made it clear he wasn't putting pitches where he wanted to.

As it turned out, the Sox would plate a half-dozen runs en route to a 6-0 win. Beyond the two runs plated by Konerko in the first on his clout, the Sox scoring was closed out by an Alex Rios shot in the eighth. However much was made by Ozzie Guillen before the game (saying he'd run with anybody not named Konerko) and after about how this club would scrabble after runs, the Guillen number stands at 50 percent on the season. It's hard to credit baserunning for manufacturing all that much of it when Westbrook was putting people on base. With Mark Kotsay deposited in the fifth slot of the batting order, he was handed two bases-loaded situations, and "manufactured" runs in that he hit a pair of tailor-made double-play grounders that produced runs, scoring the man from third both times, with one GIDP. Three outs and two runs on two bases-loaded plate appearances—is this really what Ozzieball is supposed to be? Skip swimming like the piranhas; what's this for an offense, the Asian carp? That seems more likely: more an invasive nuisance than a deadly threat.

On the other hand, there are times when you can understand what's involved, given the talent on hand. Getting Mark Teahen thrown out on an attempted steal to end the second inning might get understandably bashed in sabermetric circles as a low-percentage play, but with Juan Pierre at the dish, there's almost no chance that the unslugly Juan Pierre's going to plate Teahen from first base. So why not employ some adaptive in-game tactics? If it works, maybe Pierre splashes a shallow single and plates Teahen; if not, the lineup leads off the third with the top of the order.

On defense, as much as a single game is supposed to say anything, you saw several players live up to their billing. Gordon Beckham showed grace afield in his first-ever big-league start at second, with a nice back-handed flip to Konerko to get Grady Sizemore in the first, and with an equally nifty fast feed to Alexei Ramirez for a force in the top of the third; Ramirez's throw was off-line, pulling Konerko off the bag, so the deuce was muffed, but he was trying to get the speedy Michael Brantley. Becks almost made a nifty play in the sixth, ranging far into the outfield grass his left to get Asdrubal Cabrera. It's too soon to talk about shades of Robbie Alomar with that sort of play, but it was easy to appreciate. In some respects, it was an all-around great day for keystone play; Mark Grudzielanek (yet another man away from the bigs for a year) was similarly nimble around the bag; with Cabrera as his partner on the deuce, the saving grace and the misfortune for Indians fans will be their getting only too familiar with seeing Grudz try to provide best friends a-plenty for their pitchers.

The Sox enjoyed the benefit of a couple of other web gemmy-type plays on the day. You'll almost certainly have seen Mark Buehrle's amazing between-the-legs shovel play after running down a ricochet belted by Lou Marson; he very nearly collided with Marson (after the game, he noted he didn't really think about how close they came), but made the shovel from foul ground. Think about the factors that had to go into that: a ball that was hit only just so hard, so that Buehrle can make a kick-stop, a runner either slow enough or fast enough, added to Buehrle's exceptional fielding? With a play like that, he may have won a ballgame and his second Gold Glove on the same day, because they'll be showing that play all year.

The other highlight-worthy play was Rios' lunging catch to end the game, an exclamation point of sorts since the Sox reshuffled both the infield (moving Beckham from third to second) and outfield (putting Rios in center while moving Quentin from left to right). They're meaningless in terms of samples, but symbolic in terms of the expected benefits.

Besides that sort of excitement and a precautionary x-ray (with just bruises to talk about for their trouble), Buehrle gave you the sort of start you can expect when he's rolling: seven innings, three hits, a walk, three strikeouts, 95 pitches, 63 strikes. The symptoms of a strike-throwing machine doing exactly that. With that bit of on-field mayhem and given it's just Opening Day, Guillen took care to get his pen into the action, letting J.J. Putz and Matt Thornton throw an inning apiece, and tantalizing folks with the possibility of seeing position-playing convert Sergio Santos make his pitching debut when he warmed up the fireballer in the sixth. Whether or not Santos becomes a new Ozzie phenomenon or the latest Sasquatch-like irrelevancy remains to be seen, but a pen with Putz and Thornton in front of a slimmed-down Bobby Jenks still sounds as good a game later as it did before Opening Day.

For the Indians, the day reflected some of the issues in play. Obviously, the rotation's one that presents perhaps an overly rich blend of risks and rewards. Just as Grudz and Cabrera had to shine and did to minimize the damage Westbrook was doing at home plate, Marson had (too many) opportunities to show some agility behind the plate. As far as my own expectations that Manny Acta will be able to do more with the talent he has in this pen than he was able to squeeze out of the Nationals' collection of vagabonds and brigands, they may need to be fulfilled to provide all that much hope. Aaron Laffey managed to contain a no-outs, bases-loaded situation in the fifth by getting Kotsay's GIDP, so the Sox got a lone run out of that opportunity. Jensen Lewis and Tony Sipp had their moments, so a four-inning effort with one run allowed and one inherited runner out of three... if that's the sort of thing that becomes commonplace, moving past 80 wins and into the race in the Central will obviously be hard.

So, a great game, and it's time to book back home to wrap up the roster moves made in the AL and a few NL teams. With condolences to the Tribe, it was a fine way to get the season underway.

Christina Kahrl is an author of Baseball Prospectus. 
Click here to see Christina's other articles. You can contact Christina by clicking here

Related Content:  Paul Konerko,  Mark Buehrle,  Jake Westbrook

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