There often is a signature play in a baseball game that plays a major role in the outcome. You might think that in yesterday's White Sox game, an 11-9 loss to Houston, that one of the seven home runs hit -- four by the Astros, three by the Sox, and many of them monster shots -- would be that signature moment.
But for my taste, the play that best defined how badly things unraveled for the South Siders was a defensive lapse by shortstop Alexei Ramirez that enabled Houston to cap a five-run 6th inning rally for a 9-3 lead, a hole too deep for Chicago to dig out of even with a pretty interesting late-game rally.
With runners on first and third and two outs, Astros baserunner Brian Bixler took off on what appeared a rash decision to try to steal second. But what Bixler really was trying to do is bait the White Sox into chasing him in a rundown while Jose Altuve, the runner on third, bolted for home. It's a risky play, because it pretty much requires the defense to get a little discombobulated to succeed. Unfortunately for the Sox, this time it worked like a charm.
Bixler jammed on the brakes a few feet from Ramirez, who started chasing him back to first when he spotted Altuve threatening to dash for the plate. Just at that moment, Bixler raced toward second, distracting the Sox shortstop, who would have prevented the run from scoring if he'd been able to tag Bixler before Altuve crossed the plate. But Bixler belly-flopped into second safely, Altuve scored, and Ramirez was left holding the ball.
(Houston's Brian Bixler was a busy boy on the bases. Here he dives in with a straight steal in the 5th. One inning later, he instigated the rundown play that the Sox botched, costing them a run.)
The loss closed a disappointing series with Houston that the Sox lost 2 games to 1, in a rather wan rematch of the 2005 World Series that gave the Sox their first Major League Baseball championship since 1917. The White Sox, of whom little was expected by the pre-season pundits, still hold a half-game lead over Cleveland for first place in the American League Central Division, with a 60-game record of 33-27. But Houston came to town with a 24-33 record and a standing one rung out of last place by the grace of the fact that they share the National League Central with the 20-40 Chicago Cubs. In other words, the kind of team you need to beat up in your own house if you want to stay in first.
Sunday's game highlighted the pitching problem that has emerged as the single biggest threat to the Sox' hopes of maintaining their good season start. (James Fegan's White Sox Observer blog on Chicago Now has a good analysis.) And it especially elevated the struggles of Philip Humber, who at the rate he is going may become the first pitcher to throw a perfect game in April and then lose his place in the starting rotation by the All-Star break in July. Since allowing no baserunners in an April 21 win at Seattle, Humber has gone 1-4 with a 7.50 earned run average.
Some struggling players alternate good and bad games. Humber showed in one game Sunday how brilliant he can be when he's on top of his game, and how close to disaster he is skating even when he is pitching well.
Humber retired the side in order in the 1st, then surrendered two runs in the 2nd on a leadoff homer by Astros' designated hitter J.D. Martinez and a two-out, run-scoring single by centerfielder Justin Maxwell. The home team briefly wrested a 3-2 lead by scratching out two runs in the 3rd and one in the 4th off Houston starter Lucas Harrell, a former White Sox prospect, while Humber went on a roll, retiring Houston in order in those innings and striking out five consecutive batters.
But in the top of the 5th, a leadoff single by light-hitting rightfielder Brian Bogusevic was followed by a moon shot that Maxwell launched into the second deck in left field. Humber's day was over after he surrendered a homer to Houston first baseman Brett Wallace and a single by third baseman Chris Johnson with one out in the 6th, ending with an interesting stat line in which he struck out nine batters in 5-1/3 innings but gave up six runs on six hits and two walks.
(Justin Maxwell addresses the pitch that he would deliver to the second deck in left for a two-run homer.)
(Philip Humber leaves the mound in the 6th after a promising start dissolved into another frustrating outing.)
The game, nonetheless, got out of hand as reliever Nate Jones proved no improvement. After inducing the second out, Jones gave up a walk to Maxwell, a two-run double to catcher Chris Snyder, a run-scoring single to Altuve and a single to Bixler that set up the aforementioned slapstick rundown play.
Sox' DH Adam Dunn cut the lead to 9-4 with a home run that continued his incredible power rebound after the abysmal first season he had after signing a free-agent contract with the team. Dunn now has 20 homers, nine more than he hit all of last year, and 46 runs batted in, four more than he had in all of 2011.
(Adam Dunn heads for third after belting his 20th homer of the season.)
But Houston got one more homer, a two-run job off Zach Stewart with two outs in the eighth, from a most unexpected source: Altuve, who is having a fine first full season in the majors with a .326 batting average but whose 5-foot-5, 170-pound build doesn't scream "power hitter."
Falling behind 11-4 apparently was a wake-up call for the Sox. They got two back when Astros reliever Wilton Lopez got touched for a homer by Paul Konerko, the steady 36-year-old star whose great start (.365 average, 12 homers, 35 RBI) not only makes him a strong candidate for the All-Star Game but has raised chatter about a future induction into the Baseball Hall of Fame. Then in the 9th, the Astros brought struggling reliever Fernando Rodriguez in to get some work with a five-run lead, which quickly became two runs after he gave up a three-run homer to Sox' veteran third baseman Orlando Hudson, who had been in a hitting slump since Chicago picked him up from San Diego. That forced the Astros to bring in closer Brett Myers, but he quickly shut the door, preserving the 11-9 win with his 15th save.
(Paul Konerko about to kiss that ball goodbye for his 12th homer of the year.)
My next report from the ballpark will follow Wednesday's game between the Cubs and Detroit Tigers at Wrigley Field. I'll be back at U.S. Cellular Field next Monday, when the Cubs visit to finish up this year's Crosstown Classic. The Sox swept the three-game series between the teams at Wrigley May 18-20.