Confidence vote: Buehrle up, Beckham down

Bartolo Colon sure didn't do the White Sox any favors on Wednesday, but another South Side favorite offered his assistance.

Old friend Nick Swisher came to Mark Buehrle's aid. Buehrle had walked Derek Jeter on four pitches and fell behind Swisher with a first-pitch ball. The two tussled to work the count full, and Buehrle's 3-2 pitch was a fastball up and out of the zone.

Normally, Swisher has no problem picking up Buehrle. In head-to-head matchups, Swisher entered the game 10-for-22 against Buehrle, with six walks. It should have been seven, but Swisher chased the high "heat" and headed back to the dugout.

And so began a nice night of work for Buehrle, who allowed fewer hits (six) than innings pitched (seven) for just the second time in six starts. He didn't miss much, and the pitch that killed him -- the low, inside fastball to Robinson Cano that became a three-run homer -- wasn't a mistake, either. He put the ball where A.J. Pierzynski called for it, and Cano's a really good hitter. 

Buehrle settled down after that. The Cano bomb was the lone extra-base hit Buehrle allowed, and he retired 16 of the final 19 batters he faced. Better yet, he corrected the flaw that undermined his previous start, as he was able to get his cutter in on right-handed hitters. That kept the short porch from coming into play, and allowed him to get more reaches on his changeup. He struck out five Yankees on the night to boost his strikeout rate to 4.19 per nine innings, so he's back into tenable territory in that regard.

Buehrle usually struggles against the Yankees (he entered with a lifetime record of 1-7 and a 6.68 ERA), and furthermore, Joe Girardi optimized his lineup for a left-handed starter. Swisher has only been hitting from the right side this year, Andruw Jones replaced the struggling Brett Gardner, Russell Martin was back in the lineup, and ninth-hitting Curtis Granderson had seven hits in his first 18 at-bats against lefties. And those players are surrounding the always-scary combo of Mark Teixeira, Alex Rodriguez and Cano.

That should have been a prescription for pain, but Buehrle weathered the early storm and prevented the Yankees from threatening again.

Through six starts, Buehrle's numbers aren't where he'd want them to be (1-3, 5.12 ERA). But in his sixth start last year, the same Bombers pasted him for five runs on 10 hits over 4 2/3 innings. That set him back to 2-4 with a 5.30 ERA, so 2011 Buehrle is not in unfamiliar territory.

The takeaway is that Buehrle still has enough stuff to get to the inside corner against righties - even good ones. That's what he needed to show, and he did so against a formidable foe. His lack of velocity (he was 84-85 while Bartolo Colon was touching 96) will lead to the occasional beating when he's off, but he left me feeling far more confident that he can live up to expectations by providing a slightly above-average performance over an above-average amount of innings.

On the flip side, Gordon Beckham is a mess.

Beckham went 0-for-3 on Wednesday, and went down looking in the most crucial at-bat of the game (bases loaded, nobody out in the second inning). The backwards K was Konfusing -- not only was Colon throwing all fastballs at the time, but the pitch Beckham watched for strike three was a more hittable version of the pitch he watched for strike two.

He now has just four hits and one walk over his last 51 plate appearances, representing a new low in his career. Even during his disastrous first half last season, I couldn't find one stretch where he hit worse than the .080/.098/.100 line he's thrown up there (almost literally) the past 14 games.

Ozzie Guillen is concerned about his body language. Beckham is verbally keeping his head up. Both of these things happened last year at almost the same point in the season, and there will probably be a multiple-game benching or two before he finally gets back on track.

Everything we've seen so far from Beckham in his young career suggests that he's predisposed to streaks and slumps. His swing gets longer and leaves him exposed to a quarter of the strike zone. That's no big deal, because players ebb and flow to varying extremes.

The extremes aren't supposed to get worse, though. The complete nothingness for weeks is a problem - especially at the beginning of the season. When the presumptive No. 2 hitter is relegated to the bottom of the order so soon, it adds plenty of stress on weak points. That bases-loaded strikeout was more symbolic than it should have been. Beckham left Omar Vizquel and Juan Pierre to clean up his mess, and that illustrates the stress his absence has put on the rest of the roster. 

Without an even moderately effective Beckham, Omar Vizquel has to prove 44-year-olds can still hit. Alexei Ramirez has to hit when he's never could (his OPS is back in the .600s). Mark Teahen has to play more third than anybody is comfortable with.

Poor Brent Morel may be the biggest victim in this whole mess. Nobody expected him to hit the ground hitting, and because it's the White Sox in April, he's barely keeping his head above water. That possibility was accounted for.

However, when one of the three most important offensive players has plunged into Earth like jart, the pressure is on everybody else to contribute - especially the corner guys. On a contending team, it takes a village to raise a rookie, and Morel is on his own now.

Nobody should start piling dirt on Beckham's 2011 campaign. He snapped out of it last year, and I'd bet that he'll do it again. It's just his status that's in jeopardy. If he can't get out of the first month with his game intact, and if he can't ever stake his claim in the top half of the order, then he becomes a mere complementary player. That wouldn't be the worst of fates for a first-round pick -- Joe Borchard is -- but it leaves Kenny Williams looking outward for stabilizing presences.

When it comes to position players in Williams' world, if you're not a rock, you're expendable. That's not what's supposed to happen to a player who was once deemed untouchable.

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