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Ventura's challenge: Keep Sox hungry

Expectations have changed after leading division for most of 2012

David Haugh

In the Wake of the News

4:33 PM CST, February 9, 2013

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As Robin Ventura found out during his first trip to jolly old England, any torture the White Sox felt at The Cell in September paled in comparison with what poor blokes used to endure inside the Tower of London.

"The history of that spot is just mind-blowing,'' Ventura said.

The Sox manager and his wife, Stephanie, just returned home after visiting oldest daughter Rachel, who is studying abroad. For a couple of carefree weeks, the only pitch count concerning Ventura was the number of soccer fields he saw while sightseeing. It gave Ventura a last chance to decompress before pitchers and catchers report Tuesday to Glendale, Ariz. — and an opportunity to discover how global the Sox brand has become.

"All of a sudden you see White Sox hats or jackets, and at first I didn't think anything of it, but then my wife says, 'Hey, we're in London!' '' Ventura said. "That was pretty cool.''

So were occasions when people noticed Ventura but seemed puzzled why he was on the Tube instead of in the dugout.

"You look at each other and they're thinking, 'I know you but don't know why you're here,' '' Ventura kidded.

Get used to the stares, Robin.

The baseball world will watch the Sox even closer in Ventura's second season. The job will feel the same when Ventura arrives in Arizona, but the expectations unquestionably have changed since he was an unknown rookie manager.

That happens after a team spends 117 days leading the AL Central before squandering a three-game lead with 15 games left. The Sox, good enough to win 85 games again, will sneak up on nobody in 2013. Good teams will be waiting and ready for a Sox team they no longer can overlook. Bad teams will be gearing up for a surprise contender.

The Sox must approach opening day as if they proved nothing in 2012 — which poses perhaps Ventura's biggest challenge. Forget the vastly improved Royals and Indians. Complacency threatens to get in the way of the Sox's pursuit of the Tigers. The trick for Ventura comes in reminding Sox players that what they didn't accomplish in the final two weeks ultimately outweighed what they did in the first five months.

"Before last year we had developed a chip on our shoulder with a certain attitude, so I think now, just because you went through a season when you got close, you should be hungrier to finish it off this year,'' Ventura said. "That's more the mentality I'd like us to have instead of thinking, 'Hey, we've done enough to silence everybody.' For me, that's what you guard against most.''

Guarding against it became tougher for Ventura when the Sox opted not to re-sign A.J. Pierzynski and Kevin Youkilis. The Sox pitching staff might not miss Pierzynski calling pitches unlikely to get away from him in the dirt, but A.J.'s daily edginess will be missed in the clubhouse. Same goes for Youkilis, whose championship gravitas and grittiness complemented Paul Konerko. Ventura acknowledged the leadership void might compel him "to get involved and do different things.''

"If you don't have that (edge), you assert yourself a little bit more,'' Ventura said. "We'll see how it goes.''

As the health of the pitching staff goes, so will go the Sox. To preserve it, Ventura will ease young starters Chris Sale and Jose Quintana, as well as recovering lefty John Danks, into a regimen reflecting the longer spring training due to the World Baseball Classic. Prudence also will guide the schedules for injury risks Jake Peavy and Gavin Floyd. Stay off the disabled list, stay in contention.

"You want to save your bullets,'' Ventura said.

Offensively, the Sox oddly were so inactive this offseason that inordinate scrutiny surrounds Pierzynski's replacement, Tyler Flowers. But who replaces Flowers? It often goes overlooked how Flowers' success as a backup helped keep Pierzynski fresh. Switch-hitting Hector Gimenez will get the first look because of versatility. The only other new face among everyday players belongs to third baseman Jeff Keppinger, a pesky hitter who Ventura says could hit anywhere from second to seventh.

"We're not a team you look at and know this guy's going here and this guy's going there,'' Ventura said. "We can move things around.''

Everything but the calendar, that is.

"(Major League Baseball) isn't going to let us speed it up and go to two weeks left in September,'' Ventura said. "The focus for me is we can't hurry up and get to that point and make it not happen again. There's a whole lot of season to play to hopefully get in that same position. I want them as hungry as last year.''

A good memory will help the Sox keep a big appetite when vacation ends Tuesday for everybody.

dhaugh@tribune.com

Twitter @DavidHaugh