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Even in defeat, White Sox find their timing

Justin Verlander squandered an opportunity on Tuesday, too.
Justin Verlander squandered an opportunity on Tuesday, too.

Hawk Harrelson likes to say, "Don't tell me what he hit -- tell me when he hit it."

He also likes to say, "It's not who you play, it's when you play them."

In both cases, he's paraphrasing a more general, but no less applicable truism: Timing is everything. And it was especially applicable throughout Tuesday.

First, the Sox placed Gavin Floyd on the DL and called up Dylan Axelrod, confirming Robin Ventura's earlier inclination of starting Axelrod on Wednesday.

At the time the plan was hatched, Ventura didn't need Axelrod to start on Wednesday, because Jake Peavy would be on regular rest. However, Ventura saw a dual purpose in pushing back Peavy a couple days:

  1. Peavy's been worked hard, and if a guy could use a couple extra days, it's better to do it before September.
  2. Ventura would have his two best pitchers ready to roll in Detroit.

The first part seems like a no-brainer in a vacuum, but the second part took some of the shine off the idea. Ventura tried arranging his rotation in the same way in July -- Peavy against Justin Verlander for the Friday opener, and Chris Sale on Saturday against Rick Porcello. The Sox lost both games, and then Philip Humber fell to Jacob Turner to make it a sweep.

Maybe it would have been time to try the other strategy -- pit Peavy against his original competition (in this case, Joe Saunders), and let the wins falls where they may, crossing fingers. At this point, it comes down to whether you think Doug Fister is that much better than Joe Saunders.

But then Peavy turned Ventura's notion into a necessity with a well-timed eye infection that eliminated all second-guessing. Sure, we have knowledge that Ventura would have started Axelrod regardless, but Peavy's inability to pitch on Wednesday essentially turns the Axelrod/Peavy flip into a lab experiment. Ventura can watch his first hunch be (in)validated without any of that pesky second-guessing.

And then there's the matter of the Chris Sale-Justin Verlander matchup on Saturday Sunday, which lost a little of its spotlight appeal after each pitcher turned in their worst starts of the season on Tuesday:

  • Sale: 4 IP, 6 H, 4 R, 4 ER, 3 BB, 5 K, 1 HR
  • Verlander: 5.2 IP, 12 H, 8 R, 8 ER, 3 BB, 6 K

Some fun facts about Verlander's outing: The Tigers have dropped 11 Verlander starts this season, after losing all of nine last year. He blew a 3-0 lead. His BABIP rose from .257 to .270 in just two innings. And in the strangest turn, the Tigers are 7-2 against the Royals this year. Both losses were Verlander starts.

(The Tigers and Royals meet seven times over their last 10 games, which would seem to put Detroit in prime position for a strong finish. But the Royals are no stranger to strong Septembers even in down years, and with veterans giving way to more qualified rookies down the stretch, they could be in a position to play spoiler.)

Of course, Sale had problems of his own on Tuesday, especially in the second inning. Nobody pointed to health or fatigue -- he was able to reach back and find 94, but he couldn't find the strike zone. And even if he pitched better, it would've been hard to disable the Orioles more than Chris Tillman neutered the Sox lineup.

Fortunately, he couldn't pick a better time to throw his self-described "disgrace." A very good outing might not have changed the outcome, and the Sox maintained their two-game lead in the standings. The Tigers are the ones kicking themselves, since they scored eight runs in a Verlander start with the White Sox losing and still failed to gain ground.

So, let's review: On Tuesday, the White Sox placed one starter on the disabled list. Another one reported an eye infection. A third posted a dud. And at the end of the day, the Sox were no worse for the wear in the standings. It rarely lines up like that.

Then it's back on the White Sox, maybe as soon as tomorrow, and definitely by Sunday. That's when Verlander and Sale will get a chance to dust themselves off on Saturday at Comerica Park. Verlander's ERA is 2.80; Sale's is 2.81. We'll see who's better at disrupting timing.