Sox have more to lose — and they do

They feel fortunate to be still in contention, but margin for error is slim

Tribune sportswriters Phil Rogers and Fred Mitchell discuss the first game of the Cubs-Sox series at U.S. Cellular Field.

Where have you gone, Carlos Zambrano?

You too, Milton Bradley?

On a night when the city was glued to a hockey game in Detroit, the 17th edition of the City Series began with thousands of empty seats at U.S. Cellular Field, each reflecting Chicago's buzz-defying baseball scene. It sure wasn't this way when the teams were managed by Lou Piniella and Ozzie Guillen, was it?

But at least fans on one side of town can dream — and naturally that was the team playing the infield in during the sixth inning Monday night, never a good sign.

Being suffocated by Jeff Samardzija, the White Sox didn't think they could afford to fall behind by more than 3-0. So Robin Ventura brought his infielders in against Scott Hairston, then watched as Hairston lifted a sacrifice fly to right fielder Alex Rios, pushing the lead to 4-0.

It figures it was the Cubs who took the opener of the reconfigured City Series — the teams play four games this year, the first two on the South Side, the last two at Wrigley Field — as it's the Sox who really need to win.

While doing little to excite their fans — save that great Sunday night when Chris Sale flirted with perfection against the Angels — the Sox had gotten themselves out of a 15-21 hole. They climbed to .500 by sweeping the Marlins over the weekend and are pinching themselves that they haven't been buried.

"We've had a lot of injuries,'' Adam Dunn said. "Offensively we've been pretty much terrible all year. For the first month our defense was terrible. For me to sit here and us to be (24-25) is unbelievable with the way we've played.''

Dunn wasn't finished.

"Granted, lately we've played better baseball, but still not the way we're capable,'' he said. "We've played as bad as you could probably imagine for a month and a half, and we're at .500. That's a victory. We could easily be 10 games out, at least.''

It probably wouldn't have mattered whom Samardzija faced. He was that good in throwing a two-hit shutout, with 97 mph fastballs in the first and ninth innings and a killer splitter whenever he needed it. Sox manager Robin Ventura said Samardzija reminded him of the Mets' Matt Harvey, and that's high praise.

The Cubs basically did everything right in the 7-0 victory before 30,631, with Samardzija making it seem the Sox were in a hurry to watch the Blackhawks game.

Dunn, the .156-hitting cleanup hitter, believes he's the key to whether the Sox can stay in the race.

"I know if I'm swinging the bat the way I'm capable of swinging it, we're going to score runs,'' he said. "If I'm not, we probably won't score a lot of runs.''

Dunn was 0-for-3 and struck out twice against Samardzija, reaching his nightly quota. He's right about his team being fortunate to be hanging around .500, but he might overstate his own importance a little (although it's easy to see why he would feel that way, given that he has stayed in the middle of the order while hitting .181 for almost 21/2 years).

It's Chris Sale and Jake Peavy who will determine if the Sox can recover from their slow start to make it tough to unload talent at the July 31 trade deadline. That 1-2 punch in the rotation is the one edge the Sox have over most teams.

When Sale and Peavy start, the Sox are 13-5. That means they're 11-20 when they don't — and that explains why Ventura will hold his breath until Sale has shown the stiff shoulder that kept him from throwing a bullpen session after his May 17 start in Anaheim was no big deal.

It's one thing to get shut down by a guy with the combination of stuff and command Samardzija featured against the team he grew up watching. It would be another to lose with Sale going against Edwin Jackson, whom he followed into games in 2010 and '11.

Sometimes it's hard to see it from here, but funny things happen in baseball. The Sox have a chance to make this a special season. They just don't have a lot of margin to make errors.

progers@tribune.com

Twitter @ChiTribRogers

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