Danks' revival a needed boost for White Sox
Resurgence of veteran left-hander key to stabilizing rotation for playoff hunt
CHICAGO -- It's not going to be easy, and they know it.
But the White Sox have Jose Abreu, an abundant supply of energy and a winning record, their first on this date since 2006. If they can get some better pitching, who knows where they will be when September rolls around?
One season removed from 99 losses, they just might have a shot to do something no one expected, contend for a playoff spot. Their chances increase significantly if they can get a summer's worth of quality starts from John Danks, who bounced back from a pair of subpar outings to beat the Cubs on Wednesday night.
Danks is excited about the foundation that the White Sox are building.
"I think we're right where I've said we were going to be since Spring [Training]," said Danks, who is 3-2 with a 4.93 ERA. "We're a fun team that never feels like we're out of a ballgame. We play hard, and the pitching is coming around. I still expect it to be a fun summer."
Catching the Tigers is a tall order for the White Sox, as it would be any team that doesn't have its own trio of starters like Justin Verlander, Max Scherzer and Anibal Sanchez. But the balance around Major League Baseball could mean that Wild Card spots stay within reach for many teams this summer, with 88 or 90 wins enough to let teams dream.
"There's a chance of that," White Sox general manager Rick Hahn said. "You've got some awfully good teams in the West, too. That could drive it a little. But you do see extreme balance in the East, and I think there were certain years with one Wild Card when you just assumed it would be from the East. Now that there's two, I'm sure some people assume that at least one of the two will be [from the East]. But [the balance] could well lower the target, at least for the second Wild Card."
Abreu, in his first nationally televised game, had two early doubles and a single on Wednesday night at U.S. Cellular, helping the White Sox to an 8-3 victory that leaves them one win away from sweeping the Crosstown Cup from the Cubs. He even showed off his wheels, going from first to third base on a single that went off second baseman Darwin Barney's glove.
The White Sox started four players born in Cuba, and at one point had three of them (Abreu, Dayan Viciedo and Alexei Ramirez) on base at the same time. Paul Konerko was so inspired by the gathering that he pulled a double down the left-field line to clear the bases.
As well as anyone in the White Sox clubhouse, Konerko understands what it means to win a series against their Chicago rivals.
"When I got to this team, winning the city series was just as important if not more important than making the playoffs for some reason," said Konerko, who has played for the White Sox since 1999. "It was ingrained in me early on that this was a big deal for us. Our fans care a lot about how we do against the Cubs. I'd dare say more than their fans care about how they do against the Sox. I've never taken this lightly."
This was truly a night to let the imagination of White Sox fans wander. Gordon Beckham, who had four hits and a game-winning home run on Tuesday at Wrigley Field, blasted a three-run homer. Ramirez continued his electrifying two-way play and rookie Marcus Semien was on base three times (although he got picked off for the second night in a row).
With four wins in a row, the White Sox are 18-17 -- their best record at this point since a 22-9 start in 2006. That team was led by the starting rotation that carried the club to a World Series sweep the season before, with Mark Buehrle, Jose Contreras, Freddy Garcia and Jon Garland taking pressure off the lineup.
That's hardly the case at the moment. Chris Sale and Felipe Paulino are on the disabled list, and the White Sox starters are barely keeping the rotation ERA below 5.00. They've already used nine starters, getting some good results from imports like Scott Carroll and Hector Noesi.
"I think they've done great," manager Robin Ventura said. "Part of it is that, being able to get to a point [in the game], and the bullpen has really picked it up. That's another part of it that's been good. We've got a makeshift rotation compared to when we left Spring Training. These guys have been stepping up and giving the offense a chance to come through. It's been nice. Everybody feels like they're part of it and contributing."
Danks wants to be for this staff what Buehrle was before he left as a free agent after the 2011 season.
"With Mark, you just always felt good when he had the ball in his hand," Konerko said. "Mark was clutch. I know that's what's driving [Danks]. He wants to be out there in Game 1 of the playoffs."
Danks was a difference-maker the last time they went to the playoffs in 2008. He mowed down the Twins in the "blackout" Game 163 at U.S. Cellular Field. But that was before the shoulder surgery Danks underwent in 2012, which has changed the way he attacks hitters.
Danks, then only 23, averaged 91 mph with his fastball in 2008 (and hit 96 mph during that one-game tiebreaker against Minnesota). He threw it almost 2 1/2 times as often as he threw his changeup. But this season, with his fastball averaging 88 mph, Danks has thrown the changeup more often than fastballs.
Danks worked six innings on 98 pitches against the Cubs, allowing three runs. His command was unusually good -- although Anthony Rizzo was one of several Cubs who felt home-plate umpire Tom Woodring had an overly generous strike zone, a complaint that led to manager Rick Renteria's ejection -- with all his pitches.
In one span of eight batters, Danks threw 23 of 25 pitches for strikes. It was shortly afterward that Renteria said something he shouldn't have during a pitching change, earning his third ejection of the young season. This wasn't the Danks of old, yet he's now 5-for-7 in quality starts.
"Every pitcher wants to have the same stuff they came up with, but it rarely happens," Konerko said. "If you had a nickel for how many times you heard, 'You should have seen how hard this guy threw when he came up,' you'd be [rich]. Everybody loses their stuff. It's who's going to overcome that and be a good pitcher. He's doing that. He's a guy you want to pull for. ... You want to see him do well. He's a good person, the kind of person you want in the clubhouse."
Phil Rogers is a columnist for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.