White Sox need to play relevant to stay relevant

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Kansas City Royals’ Jarrod Dyson, right, steals second base as Chicago White Sox shortstop Tyler Saladino catches the ball during the fifth inning of a baseball game Saturday, May 21, 2016, in Chicago. (AP Photo/Nam Y. Huh) ORG XMIT: OTKNH106

BY DAN MCGRATH — For the Sun-Times

Nice having Chris Sale available to throw a tidy nine-strikeout four-hitter against Houston the other night and help the White Sox escape their first rough patch this season. Old soul Todd Frazier, having been through such things, dismissed the four-game losing streak as “a lull,” inevitable over a six-month season.

Perhaps, but wary White Sox fans—like there’s any other kind—feared a deeper meaning, such as the onset of reality.  All it took was a rare bad inning by Jose Quintana—Kansas City strafed him for three doubles, two singles and three runs in the sixth inning of a 4-1 victory at U.S. Cellular Field Friday night—to restore pessimism to the South Side. 

It didn’t lift after a 2-1 loss on Saturday.

“They’re tough when they get rolling,” manager Robin Ventura said of the world champion Royals. “We had our chances but didn’t capitalize.”

The Sox began the year with modest expectations, defied them with a 23-10 start and didn’t seem to mind that it slipped under local radar amidst the euphoric hoo-hah over the Cubs.

Different teams, different audiences … I get that. And I’ve never bought into the peculiar Chicago notion that a simple preference for one team isn’t enough—true loyalty means you must despise the other one. Why, exactly?

But like it or not they’re competing for a finite amount of news hole, air time, web traffic, disposable income, etc. And the Cubs—already puffed up by last season’s unexpected success—have expanded the attention gap by playing remarkable baseball amid a remarkable media effort to make celebrities of them. 

Anthony Rizzo, we know, has his own brand of breakfast cereal, with proceeds benefitting his foundation’s efforts to fight cancer. Rizzo and Kris Bryant co-star in MLB-TV commercials, and Bryant is a billboard presence all over town modeling sportswear.

Who are these guys, Bears draft picks?

Last Monday we woke up to a “news” story showing the lads doing karaoke at a Lincoln Park nightspot. Joe Maddon hawking hooch for a prominent chain of liquor stores—you can’t miss him. The zany suits or costumes that are the mandated dress code for certain trips? Oh, my sides.

Is it possible to be a little tired of the Cubs before June?

Not the way they play, no sir. They pitch, they catch, they hit, they run. They pounce on opponents’ mistakes, and they don’t beat themselves. The wily Maddon has their full attention, and he doesn’t miss a thing.  As much as the record, the eye test suggests they might be the best team in baseball, maybe the best Cubs team in my lifetime, though Jason Heyward selling out to catch Denard Span’s drive in San Francisco Friday night could stretch their depth. 

And it’s funny how success has swung the court of public opinion in their favor. The future and operating hours of their proposed beer garden is strictly a neighborhood issue. As long as they’re winning, most fans wouldn’t care if the Cubs installed a NASCAR track and a lighted driving range in their Wrigley Field plaza.

Against this overwhelming backdrop, the Sox’ impressive start has been a nice little story. But they have to play relevant to stay relevant.

The loss to the Royals on Saturday came in their 43rd game of the season. General managers believe it takes about 50 to determine a team’s true identity, but the Sox should be close enough to know after back-to-back series with Kansas City and Cleveland. The Royals’ recent pedigree and lockdown bullpen make them the team to beat in the division, while the Indians are on the move behind dominant starting pitching.

To underscore his belief that the postseason is a possibility, general manager Rick Hahn has suggested the Sox’ roster is subject to further revision. They’re not scoring, the bullpen has looked a little frayed of late, there are concerns with the back end of the rotation, and Ventura would welcome a left-handed bat with some pop. The assets required to address those needs don’t just fall out of trees, and what the Sox have to offer in exchange for them could be problematic.

Of the 25 Sox players in uniform Saturday, 11 were not with the team last season. That’s fairly substantial turnover, but necessary for a dispirited fourth-place squad that often was as unwatchable as it was mediocre.

Forty-three games is a large enough sample size to suggest significant improvement—in performance, in attitude, in depth. Compelling evidence that Chicago remains a two-team town seems a modest goal.

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