With half of their lineup remade, a strengthened and developing pitching staff, and a wacky new ad campaign to boot, the White Sox came out of the gate in 2008 ready to put the failures of 2007 in the rear view mirror. The prognosticators, however, were not sold. Tom Verducci called the White Sox the team most likely to disappoint in the AL:
The White Sox have much too far to go to make up ground on Detroit and Cleveland. This team lost 90 games last year, was outscored by 146 runs and is staring smack in the face of aging issues. They might not be as bad as last year, but so what?
Phil Rogers pegged the Sox for a 79-83, 3rd-place finish, while PECOTA projected a 77-85 season. There was general agreement that the Indians, led by ace CC Sabathia, and the Tigers, who had just acquired Miguel Cabrera and Dontrelle Willis, were the class of the division, with significant separation between them and the Sox/Twins/Royals tier.
Of course, the only way to know how a season will go is to play it out. Let’s have a look at how this year began to unfold through the window of some of the most notable games.
Key Games of the First Half
March 31: On Opening Day in Cleveland, Jim Thome hits a 1st-inning home run, but Mark Buehrle allows seven Indians to cross the plate in the 2nd. The Sox rally to a 7-7 tie, but fail to score with the bases loaded and nobody out in the 8th. A 3-run double by Casey Blake seals their fate.
April 6: The White Sox give the Tigers a 13-2 thumping on Sunday Night Baseball, scoring 9 runs against Justin Verlander. The Sox complete a sweep, while the Tigers, division favorites a week ago, drop to 0-6 on the season.
April 7: Joe Crede hits a grand slam to break a 3-3 tie in the bottom of the 7th, giving the Sox a win against Minnesota in the home opener.
April 12: On a cold, wet night in Chicago, Gavin Floyd holds the Tigers hitless until Edgar Renteria singles with one out in the 8th.
April 15: John Danks throws 7.2 scoreless innings against Oakland, beginning a personal streak of 19.2 IP without allowing a run.
May 5: The Sox get swept in a 4-game series in Toronto with a 1-0 loss. Their 6-game losing streak knocks them down to 14-17.
May 6: Floyd comes even closer to a no-hitter, keeping the postgame show alive until Joe Mauer doubles with one out in the ninth (and Nick Swisher comically dives for a ball he has no chance at).
May 22: After sweeping the Giants to retake first place in the division, the Sox come home and sweep the Indians to increase their lead to 3 games.
May 25: In another Sunday Night Baseball game, this time against the Angels, Carlos Quentin hits 2 home runs, the second of which is a walk-off shot. Quentin, who made the roster as an injury replacement, now has 14 home runs and is hitting .304/.416/.607 on the season.
June 4: Thome hits the longest White Sox home run of the season, a 471-foot blast into the center field camera well. Bobby Jenks blows the save and sends the game to a long stalemate, but Paul Konerko mercifully hits a walk-off bomb in the 15th.
June 9: The Sox come back from down 5-2, and Konerko comes through again with a go-ahead 2-run homer for a 7-5 win and a 4-game sweep of the Twins at home. The White Sox have a 37-27 record and a 6-game lead in the division. All seems right with the world.
June 22: The Cubs sweep the Sox out of Wrigley Field, and as punishment I have to wear a Cubs jersey to Six Flags.
June 29: The Sox sweep the Cubs out of U.S. Cellular Field. Quentin blasts his 19th home run, and Thome and Brian Anderson hit dingers as well. As punishment my friend has to wear a Sox jersey to the All-America Game.
July 2: The Sox sweep the Indians yet again, as A.J. Pierzynski hits a walk-off home run in the 10th for a 6-5 win.
July 15: The AL takes 15 innings to eke out a 4-3 win in the All-Star Game. Crede and Quentin are the Sox’s two representatives; they go a combined 0-for-5.
By the time they reached the All-Star break, the Sox had a 54-41 record, surprising mostly because of the sources of production. Danks and Floyd burst onto the scene to lead the rotation in their second year in Chicago. Danks was 7-4 at the break with a 2.67 ERA and 3 strikeouts for every walk, while Floyd was 10-5 with a 3.63 ERA despite less exciting peripherals.
But Quentin was the biggest surprise of all. He put up a .900 OPS in the first half and socked 22 home runs, making Kenny Williams look like a genius. Right there with him was Jermaine Dye, whose bat rebounded enough to offset his “defense”. Alexei Ramirez was terrible in a part-time role, but when he hit his first home run on May 16, Ozzie Guillen started putting him in the lineup every day, and he hit .349/.369/.519 over the next two months and never looked back.
Of course, not everything was clicking. Swisher stumbled to a .200/.329/.308 line through May 31, although he turned it on in the summer. Konerko struggled through a thumb injury, Javier Vazquez got bad again (or unlucky again), the team was still rearranging deck chairs in the bullpen, and Bobby Jenks was getting results but couldn’t strike out anyone.
Still, the White Sox had defied expectations to jump up to 13 games over .500 and hold onto first place at the halfway mark. Unfortunately, they weren’t the only team in the division defying expectations. While the Tigers were .500 and the free-falling Indians had already traded Sabathia to the Brewers, The Twins had finished the half on a 21-7 tear and pulled within one game of the Sox. How? Well, their offense just decided to go cuckoo bananas for a whole month. From June 13 to July 13:
Joe Mauer: .310/.431/.506
Justin Morneau: .364/.441/.570
Jason Kubel: .297/.400/.568
Delmon Young: .340/.370/.468
Denard Span: .375/.500/.550 (after being recalled June 30)
It quickly became apparent that the Sox and Twins were going to be fighting tooth and nail for the AL Central title, and that this could become a back-and-forth affair deep into the second half. Fortunately, the Sox had a 7-4 record against Minnesota, and with seven more head-to-head games to try to gain some ground, what could go wrong?