September 11, 2012
Jose Quintana does not tiptoe into a room. He opens the door and waltzes right in, sometimes to stick around, sometimes to be promptly escorted out.
It's a direct approach, one built around challenging hitters with strikes, and the White Sox prefer it to the pussy-footing style of newcomer Francisco Liriano, who has gone from rotation savior to odd man out. He has been bounced to the bullpen for the Tigers series, if not longer, while Robin Ventura and Don Cooper put their trust in Gavin Floyd and a pair of young lefties, Hector Santiago and Quintana, down the stretch.
For Liriano, who has lost track of the strike zone, the consolation is that in regard to the White Sox's starting pitching, all plans are subject to change.
"Starters, give us what you've got,'' Cooper said. "We're trying to win a game today with an eye toward tomorrow … and from where I'm standing right now, we're (in first place).''
Cooper talked about the starters being on a short leash, and sure enough Dylan Axelrod warmed up in the third inning Monday, after six of the first 10 Tigers hitters had reached base. But the 23-year-old Quintana made it into the eighth inning by piling up five strikeouts against Miguel Cabrera, Prince Fielder and Delmon Young while otherwise letting his teammates make plays.
When back-to-back homers by Alex Rios and A.J. Pierzynski gave Quintana the lead, the 30,287 fans at U.S. Cellular celebrated briefly before returning to their nightly vigil, waiting for the bottom to fall out.
If you've been following along, you know this is how it has been for some time on the South Side. With Liriano's earned-run average at 5.09 after eight starts in a White Sox uniform, Ventura is trying to the reach the finish line with a starting rotation that features Chris Sale, Jake Peavy and a changing cast of question marks.
"To me it's not that much different than what we've done all year long,'' Ventura said. "To me, it's just baseball.''
Maybe. But despite the encouraging 6-1 win Monday, if the White Sox are to hold on to their lead in the American League Central, they're going to have to build off the Quintana performance. They must get better results from their rotation in the 22 remaining games than they've gotten in the last month.
From Aug. 11 through Monday, the White Sox starters were 11-8 despite a 4.51 ERA — the highest among the eight AL contenders. The Rays, Tigers and A's have been far superior, and even teams like the Yankees and Orioles have been better.
While the White Sox have some advantages over the Tigers — the biggest being their consistently excellent play in the field, compared with the ham-fisted nature of the guys from Motor City — they need to get an ERA of 4.00 or better from here on to win the Central. The Tigers' lineup remains surprisingly unproductive, but Detroit's rotation is ultra-solid (3.25 ERA since Aug. 10).
Ventura can't know what he'll get from Floyd, but he's starting him Wednesday against Max Scherzer. I had thought that would only mean two more days of rest for Liriano, but Cooper says the free agent-to-be has been reassigned, at least for the next few games.
"Liriano's going to be in the bullpen,'' Cooper said. "If he hasn't been in a game by Wednesday, we could give him a sideline with the idea of starting him some time in the Minnesota series. But we haven't been thinking about the Minnesota series.''
Quintana, a swingman for the Class A Yankees last year, is closing in on 170 innings. I would use Floyd's return and a day off next Monday to give him a break before going to a six-man rotation for the end of the season (you can do that without costing Sale and Peavy starts). But Quintana's success Monday probably will get him back on the mound Saturday in Minnesota, after Santiago (or possibly Liriano) pitches the series opener.
"Tough kid,'' Ventura said. "Very, very tough kid.''
For better or worse, it's a patchwork quilt that the White Sox pitchers are making. Cooper hopes his guys can finish complete stitching it together, one strike at a time.
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