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April 15, 1999

AL Central Notebook

Game Report: White Sox vs. Royals, April 11

by Christina Kahrl

I made my 1999 Comiskey Park debut by showing up to watch the White Sox try to avoid getting swept by the Royals, in a game featuring each team's ace (Chicago's James Baldwin vs. Kansas City's Kevin Appier). My focus was on the three "stories" already being spun about the Sox and Royals:
  • How would Appier look?

  • Is Frank Thomas doing anything differently?

  • Is the Sox defense really as bad as some people would have you believe?
No single game is going to give you all the answers, so I looked at this as an opportunity to just see how things are playing out so far.

The Game

No trace of the 1890s Orioles here: no inside baseball, no tactical chicanery. Instead, there were four solo home runs on a frosty day at the least-attended game in Comiskey in at least two years. Baldwin coughed up three of the solo shots, giving him five on the year in his quest for Blylevendom. He was missing high with his breaking stuff, but since he was facing the Royals he still logged a quality start.

Probably the most painful aspect of the outing for him was giving up an 0-2 home run to Joe Randa in the first inning. Perhaps not coincidentally, Randa was the last batter Baldwin faced, walking him with two outs in the seventh inning; Baldwin nearly took Randa's head off with ball four, loading the bases. Sox fans hoping Bryan Ward can become an effective lefty specialist had to be encouraged when he blew Johnny Damon out of the water to squelch that threat.

Mixed Bag for Appier

This wasn't a great start to draw any conclusions about Appier, one way or another. Although still flashing his old delivery (the high leg kick, and a throwing motion you could compare to those curled-up party favors you blow into to get them to straighten out), Appier worked behind hitters most of the afternoon, and had special problems with Frank Thomas.After the game, he claimed he was having trouble with his command, but that his slider was working well.

But the opposition? Facing a lineup with two players who haven't hit well at Triple-A yet, plus journeymen like Darrin Jackson and Brook Fordyce, wasn't exactly a tough test.

It's usually small beer to complain about where a manager chooses to bat players, and unfair to criticize a manager who gives his bench players a spot start now and again. That said, the lineup Appier faced wasn't at all dangerous. The problem isn't the decision to give Craig Wilson a start, or to play Jeff Liefer and Chris Singleton. The problem is a lineup with all of them playing at once, along with Jackson, leaves you ridiculously short on power.

Is Big Hurt Back?

I'm biased, because I was inclined to think Thomas would be back even before spring training began, but I liked what I saw. He roped a single to left his first time up, crushed a first-pitch home run his second time up, and took his base in the sixth when Appier elected to stop messing around. He opened the ninth with a double off Jeff Montgomery, but that swell lineup left him there.

Some folks are grousing that Thomas is setting up too far away from the plate, but that's overstated. He is setting up farther away, and striding into the plate. He's always been touchy about getting jammed, and this seems like a reasonable way to keep that from happening as much as it did in 1998. He's also not goofing off with batting from a crouch, as so many people urged him to try last year.

Getting Defensive

So what about the Sox defense? Again, a single game is no basis for conclusion, but it was hard not to like what I saw. Craig Wilson made a great stop at the hot corner in the seventh, and Mike Caruso made a couple of outstanding plays going into the hole and firing the ball to first. The new Manuel-inspired throwing motion (overhand, quarterback-style) looks good. Using it, Caruso was getting his throws up instead of in the dirt, definitely a change for the better.

Jackson took a bad first step and allowed a two-out can of corn by Carlos Febles to drop in for a base hit, starting the seventh-inning fire that Ward later put out. Yes, I would have liked to have seen if McKay Christensen makes that play. I was already of the opinion that the Sox defense is better than they're being given credit for, and this game did nothing to discourage that opinion.

The Royals also flashed some leather, notably a heads-up play by Carlos Febles in the eighth. Mike Caruso tried stealing first, dumping a good drag bunt up the first-base line. It isn't a great percentage move, since it depends on the second baseman blowing the assignment and failing to cover first base. But it worked in camp, and it worked last year, and when both Jeff King and Jose Santiago moved for the ball it might have worked again, except Febles was in position and covered the base, creating an easy out. Kudos to Febles, and probably to Royals' scouting, too.

Every game has its set of firsts, and in this case, it was Chris Singleton's first major league hit (a liner that Kevin Appier dropped and then misfired to first), and his first clean major league hit (up the middle, which was Tony Muser's sign to take Appier out of the game). I'll add that to my rogue's gallery: Jamie "the Rat" Easterly's last game, Greg Cadaret's debut and Raffy Santana's last home run.

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

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