Monday, August 30, 2010

"Keep Your Eye On the Ball"

It's that generic piece of coaching advice that any ballplayer has surely heard barked at them hundreds of times on the field. Yet, as many times as the phrase has been uttered, it remains one of the sport's quintessential doctrines. There's just nothing more frustrating then seeing an infielder bobble away a routine ground ball because his eyes were already busy sizing up the next move.

After taking two of three from the Mariners this weekend while the White Sox dropped the second and third of their three-game set with the Yankees, the Twins now hold a 4 1/2 game lead in the AL Central with 31 games left to play. The White Sox have lost six of their last seven series and have the look of an imploding team, their frustration embodied by a manager who managed to get ejected from a game after taking about three steps out of the dugout yesterday. According to the website, which assesses playoff odds through a complex calculation, the Twins currently have an 87.6 percent chance of making the postseason.

Things look good, especially with a nine-game home stand on tap. But it's important to stay focused on the present. I know I myself have been guilty of looking forward, as I have written recently about the importance of securing home field advantage for an ALDS match-up and about the possible makeup of a Twins playoff rotation. I'm not naive enough to believe that I'm going to jinx the club by acknowledging their strong odds for a division title (and I really, truly hope you're not either), but nothing is guaranteed.

Last year on this date, it was the Twins who were 4 1/2 games out of first place. A week later, they were a full seven games out. Heck, they were three games back with four left to play. But a spectacular September run allowed them to surge past the scuffling Tigers and snatch the division right out of Detroit's grasp.

Some folks are discounting the White Sox entirely because of their recently uninspiring play, but it's never wise to judge a team amidst a slump. The Twins entered the month of September last year with a record only one game over .500. That didn't stop them from winning 21 of their final 32 games. There's no denying that the Sox have hit a rough patch lately, but this is largely the same club that went 36-17 in June and July, rattling off one 11-game winning streak and another nine-gamer (exactly the kind of runs that could put them right back in the AL Central mix). Oh, except now they have Manny Ramirez.

White Sox GM Kenny Williams acquired the veteran slugger from the Dodgers on a waiver claim over the weekend. The move represents a bold statement by the White Sox, who will assume responsibility for the remainder of Ramirez's sizable salary (a little over $4M for just a few dozen games) with the hopes that he can rejuvenate their fledgling lineup. Certainly, Ramirez represents a dramatic improvement at a DH position which has been a year-long liability for Chicago, where Mark Kotsay's name had become a running joke on the South Side.

It's true that Ramirez's numbers have slipped over the past couple years and his output no longer qualifies him as one of the game's truly elite sluggers, but when I size up this move by the Sox I can't help but remember the 2008 season, when a 36-year-old Ramirez rediscovered his motivation after a deadline trade to the Dodgers, posting a 1.232 OPS with 17 homers and 53 RBI in LA's final 53 regular-season games and then propelling the team to the NLCS with a monstrous postseason performance.

Yeah, Manny is now two years older. And his demeanor by the end of his stay in Los Angeles made it clear he just didn't give a damn anymore. (Ramirez came on as a pinch-hitter with the bases loaded during a game over the weekend and was ejected for arguing a called first strike.) But what is he capable of these days when he does give a damn?

Ultimately, Ramirez isn't going to single-handedly add several games to Chicago's win total, and the White Sox have an awfully steep hill to climb one way or another. But as, the 2009 Tigers learned, it is folly to count out a pesky second-place team with a month left to play, even if the odds weigh heavily in your favor.


Ed Bast said...

Re: the Sox, somebody (don't recall who) made a great point in analyzing the Fuentes deal. How in the world did the Sox fail to put a claim on him, given that a) their bullpen has been a complete disaster, and b) they would have at the least been able to block the Twins. Makes no sense. Thanks Kenny Williams.

Ryan said...

I think that the key to a Twins playoff run this year is getting home field advantage in the first round. It is for this reason that we need to keep the foot on the gas and stay ahead of the Rangers. I don't want us to get complacent with just winning the division. So I wouldn't mind of the White Sox start playing a little better, but not too much better. Keep some of the pressure on us so we keep playing well. We currently have a 1 1/2 game lead on the Rangers and I want to keep it that way.

Matt said...

This won't be enough for them. They were clamouring for a left handed power bat all year long and now have an aging, possibly unhealthy right handed one. I'm not saying Manny can't help, but they needed other things (good point, Ed) and sorry to say for Mr. Williams, this looks desparate.

Shrike said...

It seems to me that the White Sox have a problem with team chemistry. On paper they have as much, if not more talent, than the Twins, and yet they seem to act like petulant children as a team. Getting Manny seems like it's just going to add another ego to the pile.

Jack said...

The Twins indeed need to keep winning to secure the AL Central crown and home field in the first round of the playoffs. I think the White Sox will be a better hitting team with Manny R. but the difference they have from earlier in the year is their bullpen is depleted with all the recent injuries. Twins need to keep winning series by playing sound baseball and keep getting the good pitching.

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Landon said...

2 straight games Manny has impacted for the ChiSox. In both games for him, the opposing pitcher has been so nervous about Manny on deck that he gave up a 3 run game winning homer. Manny doesn't even have to swing to change the team. The Twins will feel the pressure - as Manny will single handedly make the ChiSox much, much better. Its already shown.

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