The White Sox find themselves buried in fourth place in the AL Central, a mere 1.5 games ahead of Kansas City. Their starting pitching isn't the problem: they've received ERAs of 3.23, 3.71 and 4.15 from their top three starters, who coincidentally are the three men the Jays have to deal with this weekend.
The problem is of course the offense. But the Sox bats appear to be waking up. One of their most important regulars has returned, and one of their top prospects has received lots of playing time in the absence of Joe Crede. They just took three of five from the Tigers and scored 32 runs in that series against some tough starting pitchers. It's not hard at all to envision this series turning into a nightmare, especially when you notice who's pitching tonight...
... it's Blue Jay killer Jon Garland, 8-2 in 12 starts against the Jays. Actually, he only has a 4.19 ERA against Toronto, but everybody knows that a crucial part of being a Blue Jay killer is having the intangibles to inspire your team to score exactly one more run than you allow. Garland is pitching to contact as much as usual this year. But he isn't getting his grounders or strikeouts, and his walks are up. He's survived by keeping the ball in the park and avoiding hits. Actually, he has the same ERA as Roy Halladay. I don't know what to make of that. He's a sinkerballer without groundball tendencies, which might induce some flashbacks to the last two starters the Jays smacked around. He throws around 90 but will often put the sinker up in the zone. He has a change and a breaking ball in the high 70s, but neither is really an out pitch. Here is a human-interest story on how quiet and level-headed Jon Garland's background made him. His mom does most of the talking. This one time, Garland was booed by his hometown fans after a bad start, so he gave a tip of the cap on his way out. Gregg Zaun (9-17, double, 1 BB, 1 K) and Frank Thomas (4-6, double, 2 HR) have a track record of demolishing Garland.
Tomorrow, ultra-efficient, ultra-awesome Mark Buehrle faces Roy Halladay in a rematch of their May 31 duel, which lasted a whopping 1:50 and saw the Jays win 2-0 despite only managing two baserunners off Buehrle. (Fortunately, they were both homers.) Buehrle is the Midwestern and lefthanded version of Doc. He works very quickly, which belies the depth of his pitching arsenal and ability to throw anything in any count. In addition to his precision fastball, he throws a cutter, slider, curve and change, all for strikes - especially the change, which will show up in many 2-0 and 3-1 counts. He's a very accomplished innings eater who deserves every cent of his new four-year contract and will probably match Halladay out for out once again. Plus he's awesome. Here is a human-interest story on what a normal, cool, down-to-earth guy Buehrle is. (Wait, that sounded facetious. Not my intention! Brief oasis of earnestness in the usually 99.44% self-indulgently facetious advance scout: Buehrle is great.) He proposed in a deer stand. There's also this exchange: "The 3-2 pitch to Thome, was that a changeup?" "Yep." "Do you throw a lot of 3-2 changeups?" Little smile, then "No. That might have been the first one I've ever thrown." The Jays have had very good success against Buehrle. Vernon Wells, in particular, owns him, 11-23 with 3 walks, 2 strikeouts and a homer. Lyle Overbay, not so much: 0-6, 3 strikeouts, 0 walks. Troy Glaus has 3 homers in 19 plate appearances.
Sunday, it's Chicago's other ace, Javier Vazquez. He's a strikeout artist in every sense of the word: he's a four-pitch pitcher who, despite having really good stuff, doesn't really overpower hitters with any one pitch. He is unpredictable and very good at keeping hitters off-balance, and he won't throw too many fastballs to anyone unless he's forced to. He's fared well against the Jays in his last two starts. There are a lot of hitters here with lousy career stats against Vazquez: Vernon Wells is 4-26 with 0 walks, 3 doubles and a homer; Matt Stairs is 1-21 with 3 walks and 7 strikeouts; Reed Johnson is 2-16 with 0 walks and 2 strikeouts. A.J. Burnett is 2-6 with a walk, but he's injured. Gregg Zaun is 5-17 with 4 walks, 1 strikeout, a homer and 3 doubles.
There are a few notable new faces in the bullpen. One of them is the knuckleballer Charlie Haeger. Haeger's knuckler tends to be around 70 on the gun. It hasn't really thrown off big-league hitters yet, as Haeger has only struck out one hitter in his short tenure, but it's a small sample and it must be hard coming out of the bullpen with a knuckleball. Unlike Tim Wakefield, Haeger has a heater that can get up into the high 80s. His BABIPs have been surprisingly high throughout his minor-league career. However, he's only 23, and baseball needs a knuckleballer. So good luck to you, Charlie Haeger. You are on the side of the angels...
Righty Ehren Wassermann is living the dream. After an undistinguished career at Samford University, he showed up at a Sox regional open tryout at age 22 in 2003, and got signed. Now here he is. Wassermann has a Neshekish manner to him on the mound and a funky sidearm delivery (video!) that sees him sling the ball from an angle that's basically invisible to righties. When he throws his curveball, it almost looks like it's slipping upward out of his hand as though it's coming out of a malfunctioning pitching machine before breaking down and away from righties. Wassermann can reach the 90s with his fastball, his two-seamer hangs around 87, and his slow curveball hovers in the low-mid-70s. His splits were pronounced at AAA - .305/.446/.373 vs lefties, .189/.253/.267 vs righties - which might foreshadow a nice career as a ROOGY.
Ryan Bukvich throws somewhat hard. He's 29. He finally figured out AAA this year, as a reliever, and he's had success stranding baserunners in the majors. He throws around 92 with his fastball, and has a slider around 84. He may climb the leverage ladder soon by virtue of his throwing hard.
Paul Konerko, who still walks to the plate to Metallica's "Harvester of Sorrow," on Paul Konerko: "I'm a pull hitter. I've been a pull hitter since I was 5. That doesn't mean I can't hit some balls the other way. But I'm not going to get three hits and start getting picky." Do NOT groove fastballs to Paul Konerko. He will hit them to the Pontiac Fundamentals Zone. Actually, you're probably best off if you never throw him any fastballs at all. That at least takes the sting out of his bat. Keep the ball down and you're fine, but Konerko is one of the absolute most dangerous mistake hitters in the league.
When Jim Thome comes to bat there's really no point to having a defense on the field. 100 - 24.8% K - 22.4% BB - 5.3% HR = 47.5% of Thome's plate appearances end with the ball in play, which has gotta be the lowest total in the AL.
Jerry Owens has done a pretty good Scott Podsednik impression over the last couple of months, all things considered. Since Podsednik's return from injury Tuesday, Podsednik has batted in the 7-hole, which is exactly where I'd bat his OBP and baserunning skills on a team with a deep lineup. Owens' OBP isn't great, though, and Podsednik's .341 is actually one of the best numbers on the team. And since the Sox 3-4 hitters are far more dangerous than anyone else in the lineup, it's critical to have a high OBP in front of them. Owens has batted leadoff for the past month, but Podsednik sparked the ninth-inning rally that beat Detroit with a leadoff single and scored on a walkoff telegraphed sac bunt. I have a feeling they'll swap places tonight.
Joe Crede underwent surgery for herniated discs in his back and is out for the season. Third-base prospect Josh Fields has been a full-time starter in his place, and he's shown some pop, as well as the ability to strike out a ton.
And in May, Rob Mackowiak's at-bat song was "This Is Why I'm Cold" by Twista and friends. ("I'm cold 'cause I'm hot; you ain't 'cause you not." I'm not sure whether the joke's on Mims because every other rapper in the universe is making fun of his chorus over his beat, or on every other rapper in the universe because they sound even stupider for having the nerve to make fun of "This Is Why I'm Hot" by covering it. I'll leave that one up to the philosophers.) I'm not sure if that's still the case. But, perhaps ironically, Mackowiak's bat is actually on relative fire and I'm perplexed as to why he isn't getting more playing time.
The Credit Section: All offensive stats, pitches per PA for pitchers and league average stats are from the Hardball Times. Pitchers' stats and leverage indices are from Fangraphs. Minor-league stats are from Minor League Splits and First Inning. K% and BB% are strikeouts and walks as a percentage of plate appearances; GB% + LD% + FB% = 100.