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September 30, 2005

Prospectus Game of the Week

Chicago White Sox @ Detroit Tigers, 9/29/05

by Jonah Keri

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For all the talk of chokes and collapses, the Chicago White Sox came into Thursday's game against the Detroit Tigers with a solid 16-12 record in September. Yes, the hard-charging Cleveland Indians closed to within 1.5 games of the division lead by Sept. 22. But you could hardly blame the Sox for the Indians' 18-4 record to start the month, a mark which had them still 1.5 games back as recently as six days ago.

That the Sox got well during the month against the league's weaker sisters, including the Tigers and Royals, misses the point; the Indians did the same for much of the month, then in the last few days the Indians, Red Sox and Yankees have all struggled at times against similarly weak competition.

Chicago's recent run, coupled with struggles by the Indians and the other Wild Card contenders, assured the White Sox of a playoff spot. But Thursday's game gave them a chance to claim the prize they'd pursued all season: the AL Central title, their first in five seasons. With Freddy Garcia going against 1997 4th-overall pick turned 28-year-old hanger-on Jason Grilli, it was theirs for the taking.

LF Scott Podsednik
3B Pablo Ozuna
RF Jermaine Dye
1B Paul Konerko
DH Carl Everett
CF Aaron Rowand
C A.J. Pierzynski
SS Juan Uribe
2B Willie Harris

It's a weak lineup with Tadahito Iguchi and Joe Crede not playing, but this is still Jason Grilli, making his first major league start this season after a pedestrian year in Toledo. Jermaine Dye falls behind 0-2 before Grilli shows why he's a career minor leaguer, grooving a fat curve over the plate that's smoked for a double--his third curve in a row to Dye, apparently thinking Dye's once-shattered leg also wiped out his short-term memory. If you look closely into the Tiger dugout, you can see Alan Trammell trying to sneak a listen to his new iPod nano, the box with White Sox wrapping paper on it perched by his side.

After a Paul Konerko walk, Carl Everett cracks a deep drive to center. Center fielder Curtis Granderson has a lot of ground to cover with the wall 420 feet away, but the ball's hanging up enough for him to make the play. Only instead of turning and running back to catch, he's backpedaling and watching, like a bookish second-grader relegated to right field. The ball shoots over Granderson's head, the center fielder bobbles it, and Everett cruises into third with a two-run triple. Worst play by an outfielder I've seen this year. Aaron Rowand flies out, Sox lead 2-0.

CF Curtis Granderson
2B Placido Polanco
DH Chris Shelton
RF Magglio Ordonez
1B Calos Pena
LF Craig Monroe
3B Brandon inge
C Vance Wilson
SS Omar Infante

There's actually some talent here. Granderson's outfield follies aside, he's a good-looking hitting prospect, especially if he stays in center. Meanwhile Placido Polanco ranks 5th in the majors in VORP among second basemen when you combine his times with the Phillies and Tigers, and that's after he rode the pine for much of the first few weeks of the season. Had the Phillies had the guts and smarts to bench punchless solid citizen David Bell and his four-year contract instead of worrying about politics and discarding the supposed malcontent Polanco, the Astros may be the ones looking up in the Wild Card standings by now. Chris Shelton was a Rule 5 steal from the Pirates, Brandon Inge has been reborn as a third baseman and Magglio Ordonez has started regaining his stroke as he tries to put his injury problems behind him.

Thanks to Freddy Garcia, though, the Tigers go scoreless for the first six innings. All day he throws a change-up that resembles the one thrown by that guy who calls Garcia his role model, some kid named Felix. One 0-2 change to Craig Monroe in the bottom of the 2nd looks like Garcia's about to gun it in at 96 mph; his motion is so deceptive, the resulting 84-mph pitch may as well be 64. Strike three.

Some notes before we get to the late innings:

  • In the 2nd, Grilli lobbed a BP fastball to A.J. Pierzynski that got lined for a double to right. Paul Konerko would later hit a first-pitch fastball so hard into the left-field bleachers that it ricocheted off the seats, caught the Southwest 12:30 flight to Chicago, and landed in the seats at U.S. Cellular. Jason Grilli, maker of dreams.

  • The very next pitch, with a 2-0 lead in the 2nd inning, the execrable Willie Harris and Scott Podsednik due up afterwards, after Grilli grooved a pitch to perfection to Pierzynski, Juan Uribe laid down a sacrifice bunt. The entire White Sox dugout got up to high-five Uribe. Hawk Harrelson's broadcast sidekick Darrin Jackson gushed over Uribe's perfect execution of the fundamentals. Podsednik then delivered a sacrifice fly to left on another batting-practice fastball (the end always justifies the means, right?). At press time Mayor Daley had just commissioned a statue to be built in Uribe's honor in front of Marshall Field's.

  • TWiQ Alert! Harrelson: "I didn't look at the Indians' schedule down the stretch until three or four weeks ago. But when I saw they were playing Tampa Bay three before they played us, I was ecstatic. I was elated."

    Jackson: "Oh, yes. We couldn't have asked for a better scenario."

  • Jose Contreras in his last eight starts: 8-0, 60.1 IP, 50 H, 11 BB, 47 K, 2.09 ERA. As Joe Sheehan noted Wednesday in his weekly ESPNews stint with Brian Kenny on The Hot List, Contreras is the type of pitcher who fares well against impatient teams with his darting splitter. If he faces the Angels in the playoffs, that could work out well. If it's a patient team like the Red Sox or Yankees, he could be in trouble. Said Harrelson about Contreras: "He's been throwing the first-pitch strikes, simple as that. I tell ya, he got ahead of a lot of Tiger hitters last night." Yup, exactly--Tiger hitters.

  • After the first two batters reach in the 7th, Vance Wilson and his 602 OPS are due up. The Tigers are playing with an expanded roster, Wilson is one of the worst hitters on the club, they're facing a tough righty in Garcia, and the Tigers actually have a chance to rally...and Trammell does nothing, letting Wilson hit. With a man on in the 9th after the Tigers have cut it to 4-2, Trammell does the same thing, leaving Wilson in as the potential tying run, when the Tiger statue in front of the park would have a better chance of going yard. In the 8th, Guillen brings in fireballing lefty Neal Cotts. Trammell leaves in Carlos Pena as the would-be tying run, with Pena hitting .149/.184/.362 vs. lefties for the year--he whiffs on a slider in the dirt.

    Do teams just not have any pride at this point in the season, or what? Oh wait, my bad...looks like there's an Escalade with a black and white bow on it in the front of the Tigers' parking lot.

  • Up 4-1, the Sox bring in Cliff Politte after Polanco reaches on a single. He'll yield an RBI double to Ordonez to cut the lead to two, but no more. Politte owns the second-lowest batting average on balls in play in the majors at .205--only Matt Wise with an obscene .190 BABIP is lower. Bet you a brat with everything on it the Sox give him a multi-year deal this off-season.

The decision not to pinch-hit for Wilson in the 9th works for the Tigers--sort of--as Crede boots a routine grounder, putting two on with none out and making Sox fans sweat. But recently minted closer Bobby Jenks, pressed into duty due to Dustin Hermanson's injury, shuts the door. After Trammell briefly wakes up and pinch-hits Dmitri Young for Omar Infante, Jenks fans him on a wicked 0-2 curve. He then gets Granderson on an 0-2 yakker, this time looking.

How did Bobby Jenks go from Top-40 prospect to one of the top head cases in the game and a likely washout, to closer for a division-winning ballclub? By tweaking his control, allowing just two homers in 36 innings while fanning 45, and mixing a fastball that tops 100 with a killer curve. Gotta love it.

When Polanco's liner lands in Konerko's glove, White Sox Nation lets out a collective "Yes!", the specter of a history-making choke dead and buried. Your AL Central champs are the Chicago White Sox.

So how do the Sox's playoff chances look, with all the doomsday scenarios resoundingly put to rest? We've ragged on the Sox already this season, but it bears repeating. Their lineup will be better than it was Thursday with Iguchi and Crede in there, but it's still an offense with too many limited right-handed hitters and an offensive sieve at the top of the order.

There's been some speculation that SmartBall, the brand of baseball supposedly preached by manager Ozzie Guillen, will serve the Sox well in the playoffs. Their supposed basestealing strength is actually a weakness, with the team swiping at a 67% success rate; even with offense down somewhat this year, that's still soundly below breakeven in today's game, meaning the Sox would be better off, as a whole, not trying to steal at all.

The bigger problem is the team's vulnerability to matchups, a problem that's magnified in the playoffs against teams with stronger, deeper rosters. A Scot Shields or even a Jon Papelbon could plow through the Dye-Konerko-Rowand meat of the order; Granderson-aided triples or not, Carl Everett's not the answer to balance things out. The Sox will need lights-out pitching, especially from their starters, to avoid having to win matchup battles late in games against more diversified teams. Will Guillen ride the hot hand? If so, Sox fans could be in for a wild scenario: Their chance at the first World Series in 88 years could rest in the right hand of Jose Contreras.

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

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