The Oakland A’s are the hottest team in baseball. They look as unbeatable as they did in the movie "Moneyball," winning nine in a row and mounting a credible threat to Texas in the American League West. At 76-57, they have the same record as the mighty New York Yankees — who outspend them 4-to-1.
The Baltimore Orioles aren’t fading, either. They won a weekend series in the Bronx to pull within two games of the American League East lead. The Yankees, an ordinary 24-24 in the second half, have reason to worry that Buck Showalter’s merry band of overachievers will clip them at the wire.
But the Chicago White Sox — the last member of the American League’s surprising triumvirate — are beginning to buckle. They arrived here Friday with a three-game lead in the American League Central. They left in a tie with the Detroit Tigers, as Justin Verlander completed a convincing sweep with his nationally televised masterpiece Sunday night.
The series underscored a sharp distinction between the teams: In Verlander and Max Scherzer — who is approaching sous ace status — the Tigers have two shutdown starters who delivered dominant performances.
“Scherzer and Verlander, the last couple days, were as good as I’ve ever seen both of them,” Chicago catcher A.J. Pierzynski said. “The way Scherzer and Verlander pitched the last couple nights, it makes it tough on anybody. You could throw the ’27 Yankees out there, and they’re going to get them out."
The White Sox couldn’t say the same about their top starters, Jake Peavy and Chris Sale, who surrendered a combined 10 runs in the series. After losing six of seven overall, first-year manager Robin Ventura must hope his least experienced starters — Hector Santiago and Jose Quintana — are unaffected by the September pressure in the first two games of this week’s homestand against Minnesota.
Statistically, the Tigers (3.88 ERA) have a better pitching staff than the White Sox (4.03). The difference could turn into a chasm over the season’s final month, when young arms grow weary and outs don’t come as easily as they did in May.
The White Sox have five rookie pitchers who have logged more than 40 innings this season: Quintana, Santiago, Dylan Axelrod, Nate Jones and Addison Reed. That is the most in baseball this year.
In fact, according to STATS LLC, only four teams have made the playoffs while relying so heavily on rookie pitchers: the 2010 Cincinnati Reds, 2000 White Sox, 1955 Brooklyn Dodgers and 1944 St. Louis Cardinals. Of that group, only the Dodgers — with a kid lefty named Koufax — and Cardinals went on to win the World Series.
Asked if the youth of the team’s pitching staff is a challenge for the White Sox, slugger Adam Dunn said, “Yeah, it is. But once you sit people down and really look at the big picture, we’re right where we want to be. Granted, we’d like to be 20 games up already, but that probably wasn’t going to happen. I know we’re not playing well. Everybody knows that. But we’ve been in this situation before this year and came out of it pretty good. I expect the same.”
Sale isn’t a rookie, although it seems that way. The 23-year-old hadn’t started a game in the majors before this year. He’s thrown nearly twice as many innings this season (163) than he did as a reliever in the previous two combined (94 1/3). There’s no talk of a Strasburg-esque shutdown. Still, Sale’s ERA has been on a steady climb since the All-Star break, and he’s surrendered 12 home runs in his last eight starts.
“Balls left and right, leaving the yard,” Sale lamented Sunday, after homers by Brennan Boesch and Delmon Young accounted for all four runs he allowed. “That can’t happen, especially at this time of year when games count and we need wins. It’s just bad.”
Dunn, who is battling a right oblique injury, vowed to return to the lineup Monday. Although Ventura wasn’t so sure, that would be welcome news for the White Sox after they managed only two runs in their last 21 innings. Dewayne Wise batted third Sunday — the first time he had done so since the final day of the 2004 season, as a member of the Atlanta Braves.
The talented Tigers were supposed to win this division in a rout, so the White Sox have every reason to look upon the current standings with pride. They have 29 games to play, 17 at US Cellular Field, where their homer-reliant lineup should have an easier time than on the big lawn at Comerica Park.
The good news is the White Sox get another shot at the Tigers, on the South Side, in a four-game series next week. The bad news? Detroit has a 10-4 record against them this year, and they are scheduled to see Scherzer and Verlander once more.
Oh, and file this away: Verlander barked at Pierzynski from the mound after fanning him to begin the seventh inning. The two jawed at one another as Detroit catcher Gerald Laird intervened, before a muttering Pierzynski retreated to the dugout. “He said something,” Pierzynski said. “I don’t know if he was excited he struck me out or what. I have nothing but respect for Justin. I’ve seen him off the field, and he’s always very friendly, very polite. He threw a great game. I don’t know … Laird said it was nothing, so I walked off.”
They’ll meet again in a week. The young White Sox pitchers have a lot of growing up to do between now and then.