This is a column I held off on writing about for a while. I’m talking about the status of the Chicago Cubs and Chicago White Sox.
Remember a month ago when TV sportscasters and some columnists wondered if we would have a Crosstown World Series between the Cubs and White Sox? The reason for the optimism was the great starts by both teams.
I haven’t played baseball in a long time but have watched a lot of major league games and suffered through some tough seasons. I do know they play 162 games and that is a marathon. The teams that are blessed with solid starting pitching, solid relief, some timely hitting, good defense, and some luck will be playing in October. I say luck because winning teams have to avoid serious injuries. If they do suffer some injuries, reserves have to pick up the slack.
And you can never have enough pitching. During a long season, starting pitchers will tire and go through “dead arm” periods. Much has been said how important bullpens are. However, if you have starting pitchers who hardly get through the fifth or sixth inning, the great bullpen will be overused and will go through a period where they can get no one out. In that sense, baseball is a cruel game.
The World Series champions are not always the most talented teams, but they are the best. Winning teams usually have battled-tested veterans who can help lead the way. Some players can have career years.
Let’s take the Cubs for instance. Paraphrasing former Northwestern and Arizona Cardinals football coach Dennis Green, the Cubs are who we thought they were. This is a ballclub that was on fire at the end of last year and rolled over the Pirates and Cardinals in the playoffs. The team had great starting pitching, a solid bullpen, adequate defense, and an up-and-down offense with power. They also struck out a lot and did not walk much. Despite those deficiencies, their confidence and strengths led them to 97 regular season wins.
The New York Mets shut down the Cubs offense and they advanced to the World Series. But the Cubs had plenty of reasons to be excited. They have kept their team intact and added pieces to the roster to strengthen the club. The surprise signing of center fielder Dexter Fowler solidified the outfield. Signing free agent Ben Zobrist to play second and Jason Heyward to play right field helped. Heyward has struggled offensively but adds defense and speed.
Zobrist has been a player who can play several positions and come up with big hits. He also draws walks, which the Cubs needed more of. Zobrist, who won a World Series title with the Royals last season, is exceeding expectations with a .351 average with seven homers and 35 RBI. His average will probably come down but he is a winner and that rubs off on other teammates.
But the “it” factor is Joe Maddon, the Cubs manager. He keeps his team loose and deals with the press, win or lose. He changed the attitude of Cubs players and even some fans who expect some catastrophe to leap out from behind the outfield vines. The bottom line is that the Cubs are in first place with the best record in baseball and a 35-14 record going into Tuesday’s action.
But Maddon’s leadership is rubbing off on his players. They respond to questions saying that it’s a long season and they just have to grind it out. In other words, unlike some sportscasters, they are not beating their chests and claiming they are the best team in baseball. They have a long way to go. Right now, they are playing the best baseball.
The White Sox were once 23-10 in April. After a disastrous week and a half, they are now 27-25 and in third place, trailing first-place Kansas City and Cleveland as of Tuesday. So, what happened? Losing, like wining, can become contagious. TV analyst and former White Sox third baseman Bill Melton mentioned it a month ago that it is great the Sox are winning. However, the back of the rotation was hardly getting through the fifth inning and the bullpen, outstanding at the time, was being overused.
The end result was the disaster Sox fans have witnessed the past couple of weeks. Despite Todd Frazier’s homers, this team has not hit that well. Perhaps it never will. But it should hit more homers when Jose Abreu relaxes and lays off breaking balls off the plate.
The bullpen needs some rest. Starters have to go seven or eight innings. The White Sox are still a contender but they will have to surpass Kansas City and Cleveland. And Detroit is just behind them. Maybe acquiring San Diego’s James Shields would help solidify the back of the order. Shields is a veteran with a great changeup and is a competitor. The Sox are rumored to be interested in him.
The White Sox could add some more winners to their roster. But my advice to Chicago fans is that the season is long. A lot can happen. Relax and take it one game at a time.