The Chicago White Sox are one of the more surprising teams in baseball, as they current sit a half game out of first place in the AL Central, and their +30 run differential is second best in the American League behind just the Texas Rangers. The White Sox have used a good blend of both hitting and pitching to contend a year after losing 83 games, a season that cost manager Ozzie Guillen and hitting coach Greg Walker their jobs. This year, it seems to be White Sox baseball of old. Their .750 OPS is fifth in the AL, and their 3.97 ERA is eighth in the league. Both of those marks are far and away best in the weak AL Central. The numbers are also a little misleading, as Chicago has some players having really great seasons on both sides of the ball. Paul Konerko is having an unreal year, hitting .399 with a 1.157 OPS and 11 homers. Adam Dunn is back from a disastrous 2011 season, and has a .953 OPS with 15 homers (second-most in baseball), but also 75 strikeouts...yep, typical Dunn. They've also gotten acceptable play from all three outfielders: Alejandro De Aza, Dayan Viciedo, and the perennially disappointing Alex Rios. Even catcher AJ Pierzynski is killing the ball, homering eight times, which matches his total from all of last year.
The Sox also have a pitching staff that is contributing in levels that no one could have imagined. Reliever turned starter Chris Sale has struck out 46 while walking out just 12 in 50 1/3 innings, and has a 2.50 ERA. Even more surprising than his season thusfar is that of former NL Cy Young winner Jake Peavy, who hasn't made 20 starts in a season since 2008. Peavy has a 3.07 ERA in ten starts, striking out 64 while walking just 12, a K:BB rate of 5.33, topped by just Colby Lewis in the AL. Chicago's other three starters have struggled, as Gavin Floyd, Phil Humber, and John Danks all have ERAs over 5.00 this year. Floyd's 54:17 strikeout to walk ratio in 61 innings is a glimmer of hope, but the trio has combined to allow 21 homers this year. No bueno. The White Sox bullpen has also had its moments, with Jesse Crain and Nate Jones keeping their ERAs quite low, and rookie Addison Reed striking out a batter per inning and currently serving as the team's closer. Former closer Hector Santiago has also struck out a batter per inning, but lost his job after a shellacking by the A's at the end of April.
This is the third time the Rays have been featured in the Series Spotlight segment in the last four series, and there's not much I can say about them anymore. This past weekend, Tampa Bay took two out of three in Boston, with the lone loss coming on a walkoff homer by Jarrod Saltalamacchia. Since last checking in with the Rays, they've received an unexpected offensive boost from a newly acquired player: Drew Sutton, acquired from the Pirates (a day after they got him from the Braves) last weekend. In five games, Sutton has an .802 OPS, walking twice and doubling twice while driving in three runs. He's been primarily starting at third base for the Rays, with Sean Rodriguez, Will Rhymes, and Eliot Johnson taking part in a rotating system at second base and shortstop. The Rays have done a good job at keeping their team afloat despite injuries to Evan Longoria, Desmond Jennings and Jeff Keppinger, and it'll be interesting to see what happens with the ragtag bunch that Tampa Bay is starting right now when those three return.
The pitching matchups in this series heavily favor the Rays. Matt Moore takes on Chris Sale in game one today, and this is the one matchup that favors the White Sox. Sale has a 1.85 ERA in five starts this month, striking out 20 while walking seven. Moore on the other hand, has pitched after the fifth inning just once this month, and has a 6.53 ERA...though a good bit of that ERA comes from an eight run drubbing by the A's three weeks ago. Game two is much more in favor of the Rays, with veteran James Shields dueling Phil Humber, who has been terrible since throwing a perfect game on April 21st against the Mariners. In six starts since the perfecto, Humber has an 8.22 ERA and a 26:19 strikeout to walk ratio. The perfect game remains his only win of the year. As for Shields, you know what you're getting with him. All but one outing this season has been at least six innings, and he's coming off of a performance against the Blue Jays when he went 7 1/3 innings, allowing two earned runs and striking out ten, while walking just one. For the season, he has 66 strikeouts in 67 innings. That strikeout rate pins him right between Justin Verlander and Felix Hernandez on the AL leaderboard - good company. In Wednesday's finale, a pair of youngsters will duel - Alex Cobb for the Rays, and Jose Quintana for the Sox. Each has made two starts this season, and both have pitched well in both of their appearances. Cobb has beaten both the Braves and Red Sox, allowing three earned in 12 innings, walking eight and striking out six. Quintana made his major league debut in relief of Humber against the Indians, and allowed just one hit over 5 2/3 scoreless innings. He earned his first major league win on Friday against the Indians, allowing two runs over six innings. He's walked five and struck out seven in 11 2/3 this year, similar to Cobb.
A pick for this series is difficult. Both teams are playing similarly well this month, and Tampa Bay's home record is as impressive as Chicago's road record. What I'm going to make my pick on though, is divisions. The White Sox are just 2-6 against the AL East, losing three out of four to both the Orioles and Red Sox at US Cellular Field. The Rays are only 3-3 against the Central, losing a series on the road to the Tigers, and winning a series at home against the Twins. Overall though, I'm more impressed by the Rays 15-11 record against the AL East (whose teams are a combined 14 games above .500, not including the Rays) than I am towards the White Sox 15-11 record against the AL Central (whose teams are a combined 21 games under .500, not including the White Sox). Strength of schedule isn't really recognized in the grand scheme of things by the MLB, but Tampa Bay has played a more difficult schedule than Chicago, and they have a better record. I'm going to predict that the White Sox win game one, while the Rays take the final two games of the series behind their superior starting pitching in those games.
Photos courtesy of Daylife.com
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