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It’s still early yet, with three weeks left before the All-Star classic. But I believe the Chicago White Sox, one of the season’s early surprises, just might be for real.
That’s right, I said the White Sox. You know, President Obama’s team, a talented but underachieving bunch who have lacked much consistency since winning it all in 2005. The club’s long-time manager, Ozzie Guillen, not only left town for a better gig but took his best pitcher, Mark Buehrle, along with him. Fans have also grown impatient with General Manager Kenny Williams and some of his controversial moves that have fallen short of expectations.
Things are looking up these days in the Windy City, however, as the White Sox have inched up the ladder and into first place in the American League Central. Veteran favorite Paul Konerko has been leading the league in hitting, and home run king Adam Dunn is a candidate for Comeback Player of the Year. Even Puerto Rican Alex Rios is living up to his overblown contract, leading the league in triples and playing stellar defense.
The pitching has also been excellent, led by former Cy Young Award winner Jake Peavy, who is finally healthy again. Lefty Chris Sale has also been lights out, armed with a filthy new change-up. Although it irritates the hell out of me, Ken “Hawk” Harrelson has been saying, “He Gone,” a lot more lately in the broadcast booth.
So, it would seem as though the South Siders are better this year, simply because they’re fairly injury-free and finally playing up to par. Not necessarily true. The big difference has been the pivotal play from a pair of relatively unknown Latinos : Alejandro De Aza and Dayan Viciedo.
De Aza, 28, is the club’s speedy center fielder and lead off man. Originally signed by the Los Angeles Dodgers back in 2001, he was picked up three years later by the then-Florida Marlins in the minor league segment of the Rule 5 draft. The Dominican native was gradually maturing, only to suffer a setback when an ankle injury that required surgery caused him to miss the entire 2008 season.
When the White Sox selected him off the waiver wire the following year, De Aza was still somewhat of an enigma. A career turning point came when Alejandro blasted his first major league home run in late July of last season. Afterwards, the lanky lefty went on a roll, batting .345 for the rest of the season.
The stocky Viciedo, tagged by Harrelson as “The Tank,” is a Cuban native who defected from the national team in 2008, and became an international free agent later that winter. Chicago paid a hefty price for Viciedo, now 23, including a $4 million signing bonus. The 5′-10″, 245 pound slugger has not disappointed, however, becoming the new White Sox left fielder last August when Carlos Quentin went down with a left shoulder strain. Things went well enough to allow GM Williams to dump some salary and later trade Quentin to the San Diego Padres for two pitching prospects. As it turned out, Carlos would avoid arbitration and sign a one year, $7 million deal with San Diego, only to suffer a knee injury and miss the first 49 games of the regular season.
Both De Aza and Viciedo are quiet men who rarely speak with reporters. While they are good defenders, especially De Aza, the pair can be streaky at the plate and didn’t get off to the best of starts. Still, Chicago’s untested manager, Robin Ventura, always kept the faith.
“I knew these guys would be playing key roles for us,” says the rookie skipper, “and I have a lot of confidence in their ability.”
De Aza has responded by batting over .400 for the month of June and is among the American League leaders in hits and stolen bases. All Viciedo has done is hit around .360 since mid-May with nine home runs and a .700-plus slugging percentage. And he’s accomplished all that while nursing slight hamstring pulls to both thighs.
It should be noted that the White Sox made their surge to the top over the last four weeks, the same time that De Aza and Viciedo have been on their torrid pace. Now, I’m not saying that Chicago’s ultimate success will depend on their all-Latino outfield. But if veteran shortstop Alexi Ramirez can get his season on track, the White Sox are going to be tough to beat at the finish line.