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White Sox Mon Jul 16 2012

Key Road Trip Swings Through Boston, Detroit

Let the critical games begin!

Okay, not really. We still have over two months remaining, and we are barely halfway through the season. This week's trips to Boston and Detroit are undoubtedly important for the White Sox, but they are not do-or-die.

That is, unless we see some sweeps.

If the Sox go 7-0 or 0-7 (or even 6-1 or 1-6), well, that's what you call a game changer. The Sox' hot run of late can be legitimized, or their entire streak of success could go for naught. While this week's slate of games -- four games in Boston, starting tonight, followed by a weekend series in Detroit -- is not "critical," the stretch can potentially make or break the Sox, if sweeps happen.

Five things in the forecast for this week:

Standings fun. The White Sox are a rare team that has done better on the road (25-17 this season) than at home (24-22), and the Sox have the third-highest run differential in the AL (+64). Meanwhile, the Red Sox are an underwhelming 22-24 at home, and the Tigers aren't much better at 22-20. This all bodes well for the South Siders.

The Sox have played the Red Sox and Tigers before this season, going 1-3 and 4-4 against them, respectively. Don't put too much into that, though: all 12 of those games happened before May 16, when the Sox were 17-20. Right after that last game against Detroit, Chicago ripped off a 14-3 stretch to claim first place.

Youkilis' return to Boston. Get ready to hear about this ad nauseum. Even the people involved in the Youk-Boston split are fueling the fire this week - Red Sox manager Bobby Valentine declined to take the high road when talking about his deteriorated relationship with the corner infielder.

Since Youkilis is such an emotional player, I see this scenario happening: Youkilis is energized by his chance to stick it to Bobby V and he continues his hot streak - .333 batting average, three home runs, 12 RBIs and 1.050 OPS in July - with some timely hits in big spots at Fenway Park. That leads to ironic cheers from the Boston fans that serves to send their team into a deeper tailspin (the Red Sox are 45-44, and 3-7 in their last 10 games).

Bad spot in the rotation. In seven big road games, the Sox will be starting Dylan Axelrod twice and Philip Humber at least once. For the Sox sake, they better hope their bats show up.

Humber has had five starts this season where he has allowed five or more runs, and Wednesday night will be his first start since June 16. Meanwhile, in Axelrod's last start, he allowed seven runs to the Blue Jays, including three home runs.

Both pitchers are somewhat similar: each has a low 90s, at best, fastball with a high 70s curveball and a slider and changeup in the mid to low 80s. Axelrod has been pitching a little more to contact this season, though, with a lower walk and strikeout rate than Humber. While asking these two for shutouts will be a stretch, setting the goals for quality starts is realistic.

Unfavorable splits. Prince Fielder is hitting .469 against the Sox this year, and 10 different Tigers have gone deep off Sox pitching. With Chris Sale slated to start on Friday, Fielder (.315) and Miguel Cabrera (.344) are each hitting the ball well off lefties in 2012. As for Boston, Jon Lester pitched seven shutout innings for a win in his lone start against the Sox this year, while Felix Doubront kept the Sox' bats in check in his start versus Chicago. Doubront did allow three runs in six innings, yet his team got nine runs for support. Both Doubront and Lester are scheduled to pitch this week.

Favorable roster changes. While the Tigers have been stable this season, the Red Sox' lineup has been in a constant state of change due to injuries and turmoil. Not counting the Youkilis stuff, Boston has had to deal with injuries that have forced Jacoby Ellsbury, Dustin Pedroia, Josh Beckett, Clay Buchholz, Daisuke Matsuzaka and Carl Crawford to miss games this year, and lingering injuries that have limited the effectiveness of Adrian Gonzalez. Daniel Bard was so bad he was sent to Triple-A, and Mark Melancon was far from their answer at closer.

To Boston's credit, they have pieced together a pretty good offense, with Pedro Ciriaco, Cody Ross, Mike Aviles, Will Middlebrooks, Ryan Sweeney and Daniel Nava all chipping in. Yet, with all of those guys, how much of it is a mirage? But David Ortiz, to no one's surprise, is for real: a .315 average, 23 homers, and an AL-leading 1.025 OPS.

Friday's pitching matchup. The stars align in the opener of the Detroit series. Sale will be facing Justin Verlander in what is sure to be quite the pitcher's duel. It could be the biggest pitching matchup of 2012 so far. It will need to be spectacular, though, to top these three gems: Hiroki Kuroda versus Jake Peavy, Sale versus Matt Moore, and Sale versus Zack Greinke.

Red hot Adam Dunn. Dunn hit three home runs against Kansas City over the weekend, and they were bombs. His first went way out to right field. The second went to dead center. His last one, his 28th of the year, just stayed fair down the right field line. Before the Royals series, he had hit only two homers since June 15.

Cooling down Paul Konerko. Can't call him ice cold because he's still hitting well. Konerko is batting .321, good for sixth in the AL. But, as recently as May 27, he was just under the magic mark at .399. What's going on? It's partially due to a regression to the status quo. Konerko's best season for batting average was in 2006 when he hit .313. In his 16th season, at age 36, was Konerko really going to hit over .350? Highly unlikely.

Also, his luck might simply be changing. Konerko has a career BABIP (batting average of balls in play) of .289. In April and May, he had BABIPs of .406 and .441, respectively, way above his usual average. In June and July, the marks dropped down to .236 and .273. Line drives that might have been hits earlier in the year are now being caught, and grounders that may have found a hole are now being fielded. Don't blame the first baseman-slash-DH for whiffs, though. He has struck out only 15 times over the last two calendar months, six times less than he did in the month of May alone.

The postseason light at the end of the tunnel. Here's a fun fact: 11 of the 14 American League teams are over .500.

Another fun fact: The White Sox have 74 games left, and they play sub-.500 Minnesota, Kansas City and Seattle 27 more times.

The Sox hold a 3.5 game lead on the Tigers right now. I would say that 92 games should win the AL Central, because to reach that mark Detroit would have to go 46-27 the rest of the way (and they're barely over .500 now). For Chicago to reach 92 wins, they would have to go 43-31 over the rest of the season. Very doable.

Anyway, to get 43 wins, they can play .500 ball against every winning team (which includes iffy teams like Cleveland, Tampa Bay and Baltimore) the rest of the way, if they can play the bad teams well. And that's very possible, because they are 12-6 versus the sub-.500 teams this season.

Basically, the Sox can win the division if they keep winning and create some separation from the Tigers. Groundbreaking stuff, I know. But, now we can see a certain number, a specific goal to reach. Forty-three more wins should do it.

And the White Sox can get a really good jump on the 43-win mark by going 6-1 or 7-0 this week.

 
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