White Sox exude rare optimism at the break

The White Sox got on a roll before the all-star break, but they'll need Jose Abreu and the rest of the offense to pick it up if they hope to be contenders in the second half. AP Photo/Steve Nesius

CHICAGO -- It was not a first half of the season to make the Chicago White Sox feel like contenders, but the immediate run up to the all-star break did make them feel good about themselves again.

Although the White Sox were humbled Sunday in a 3-1 defeat to pitcher Jake Arrieta and the Chicago Cubs, missing out on a cross-town series sweep, they still hit the break having won nine of their last 12 games while finally looking like something resembling a team.

"For sure," center fielder Adam Eaton said. "When you play good defense, which we have the last couple of weeks, playing better defense and timely hitting helps. Today we had a time with Arrieta but besides that, we've been playing a little better glove, hitting the ball a little better and our pitching has just been on point. We have to continue that when we get back."

Unity and morale were hard things to come by when the White Sox stumbled out of the gate by getting swept in the opening series at Kansas City and then falling as far as 10 games under .500, first on June 19 (28-38) and then again on June 28 (32-42).

The reversal was fast, backed by heavy doses of pitching and a slightly improved defense. But while the offense also has been a little better, it still can't be considered productive.

That leaves the White Sox thinking that either the bats never will come around, or that an even more substantial winning run is ahead if the veterans in the lineup hit to their potential.

"We played well the last two weeks; we had a good run at it going into the break," manager Robin Ventura said. "We played well, we pitched well, we played defense and scored some runs when we needed to. Today we just ran into a really good pitcher. We didn’t get much going offensively."

The winning run of late might have eliminated the slim chance the White Sox would have started a complete overhaul by trading all-star Chris Sale. But moving somebody such as Jeff Samardzija, who is a free agent after this year, remains a possibility.

Or the White Sox could keep the right-hander and give themselves a chance to see what their $120-million investment on this roster could do with a full season. They could even go the route of adding reinforcements at the trade deadline, something that still might not be in their best interest but was unfathomable three weeks ago.

"I mean we talk all the time," Ventura said when asked if he might be bold enough to ask for roster improvements in the coming weeks. "Right now we're going to go into the break and see what’s there, and see how we're playing coming out of it."

The start of the second half won't be easy. It kicks off with a doubleheader against the Kansas City Royals on Friday that opens a four-game series. Then come the St. Louis Cardinals, who are always a chore -- even if the White Sox did win both games against the National League stalwart on their last road trip.

"We started scoring some runs and playing some better defense," veteran Adam LaRoche said of the improvement. "We're not having the games with two, three, four errors that are costing us runs. And if we do have a little mishap, the pitchers are bailing us out.

"This (Cubs) series, there were a ton of double plays for big outs and just better offense. We're taking the pressure off the pitchers a little, but bit it's still not great. It seems like it's a one-run game, two-run game every night with very few comfortable leads, but we’re winning games so we'll take it."

Where can the White Sox hope for improvement from their lineup? At just about every position, including at first base with reigning American League rookie of the year Jose Abreu, whose power numbers have taken a dip this season.

The White Sox are also getting little-to-no offense at second and third base, as well as declined production from shortstop Alexei Ramirez, who was an American League all-star last season.

Catcher Tyler Flowers has slugging potential, but has hit just seven home runs. Left fielder Melky Cabrera has only started to heat up after a brutally slow start. Eaton hasn’t given what was expected following a $23.5-million contract extension, and right fielder Avisail Garcia is contributing way under expectations as one of the White Sox's few power sources.

The bench lacks power and would largely be considered a disappointment if Gordon Backham had not been able to deliver standout defense at multiple positions and J.B. Shuck hadn't been so clutch in the rare opportunities he has received.

There are also two ways for the White Sox to look at the all-star break: As bad timing because they are playing well, or as perfectly placed to give them a breather before they continue trying to repair the season.

Eaton's take: "I wish we didn't have the All-Star break to be honest with you. Continue to play good baseball on a roll, but we'll take the three, four days we have and rest up and hope to make a big push in the second half."

LaRoche's take: "I'm always excited for the all-star break, regardless of what is going on. You guys know we play a ton of games with not a lot of off days so this is a good one to go away and charge for a few days and get away from it."

Samardzija, who is the perfect symbol of the White Sox’s fortunes this season, will get the ball to start the second half.

Early in the year, he followed an unsightly brawl with the Royals by getting rocked by the Baltimore Orioles. Those were the down days. For his farewell to the first half, he fired a complete game shutout at the offensive-minded Blue Jays. It was a highlight in the midst of the team's rebound.

"I had to make a few more adjustments than I had to last year, but the pitches were all there," Samardzija said about his rebound from a slow start to his recent dominating run where he has posted a 2.40 ERA over his last six starts.

"I just needed my location and I was attacking hitters with the change a little bit. Since we've done that and found a little confidence in my delivery and what's going on out there, it just kind of builds. You feel more confident in your teammates and everything just starts to come together."

It seems like everybody feels like things are coming together. Without more offense, though, maintaining a better brand of baseball will be difficult. The White Sox can only lean on dominating pitching for so long.

Are the close games wearing on a team?

"A little bit, but I would say it wears our manager down more than anything," LaRoche said. "He's probably got a little different heart rate right now that he did at the start of the year, unfortunately. Hopefully we can turn that around for him."