Sunday's pink-highlighted affair was a frustrating effort from the Chicago White Sox long before Bobby Jenks ambled onto the mound in the ninth. Gavin Floyd vacillated wildly back and forth between the dominant pitcher with the best stuff on the staff who could lead the team in strikeouts, and the headcase with control problems who can't get out of his own way. The lineup took abundant amounts of its own sweet time rallying from behind against a Toronto team that offered them such gifts as a rare poor outing from Ricky Romero, and enough opportunities that a good offense would have put up 12-15 runs this afternoon (The Sox stranded an astounding 12 runners). Yet buoyed by very strong outings from everyone's favorite waiver wire acquisition; Alex Rios, and the little gimp that could; Carlos Quentin, it seemed like the Sox would have just enough to put a positive spin on this underwhelming homestand, and earn another split versus Toronto.
Then Bobby Jenks came in, gave up three runs, four hits, and an home run long enough to make Mickey Mantle look like a pansy, all without recording an out. And now all the good memories I had of Jake Peavy's 8-inning yeoman effort last night have been bored out of my head with a power drill, perhaps literally.
It's wise at these times to remember, that blown saves happen. I can only think of one man in recent memory who went an entire season as the closer and did not blow a save. His name was Eric Gagne, and he was on a lot of steroids. Yet Jenks is a pitcher who puts himself on a short leash because the area of his contributions is limited. He's proven himself useless in non-save situations, he's proven himself incapable of recording multi-inning saves, he's been poor and bordering on apathetic defensively, and has been very prickly in his responses to suggestions by management that he improve his physical conditioning. So when Bobby, a man who has put himself on an island and is on the roster to do one thing, ever fails to do that one thing, he opens himself to a lot of anger. A great deal of which will be present here on this blog.
Since 2006 we have witnessed the slow process of diminishment from a player who was undoubtedly overrated to begin with. Rising to fame as a man who could throw overpowering fastballs that only remained overpowering so long as he kept the ball up, Jenks has slowly lost miles on his fastball every...single...year. 2006 was generally viewed as a year where Jenks got better because his fastball was still in the 98-99 range, and he developed a sharp overhand curveball that was made deadlier because Jenks was so well-known for his fastball at the time. But each succeeding year Jenks has lost velocity continually, and gone through increasing struggles with control. This season, things have come to a head in terms of the quality of his stuff. His fastball ranges from 94-96, which is good but far from unhittable, but his breaking ball is diminished to the point of being unrecognizable. Lacking its bite, it traditionally hangs rather than breaks, and Jenks goes through long periods of avoiding using it alltogether, leaving him reliant on fastballs that can no longer be liberally thrown in the upper regions of the strike zone due to its lack of velocity. In every strategic view, he's completely screwed, and I frankly don't know why this sort of game-losing disaster hasn't occurred earlier.
However until today, Bobby had avoided a miserable trainwreck of an effort that everyone could point to and scream "That chunky oaf is killing us!" He had an array of unpleasantly close calls; saves where he had walked the tying runner on base, non-save situations where he had allowed a collection of runs in some bizarre effort to make the game exciting, but this Sunday afternoon with a performance that was not simply a good pitcher being beaten, but a demolition of a man who lacked any competitive edge over the hitters he faced, Bobby has really soiled the bed this time. And for it, he has been benched apparently. Ozzie announced that Jenks would be getting a few days off from the closer role, which for a guy who's been revered for 'telling it like it is', seems like a very careful way of announcing a demotion.
Presumably Jenks' role will be filled by Matt Thornton, which is simply a shame. Thornton is the obvious choice because he's one of the most overpowering pitchers in all of baseball, and only All-Star Joakim Soria of Kansas City has a higher strikeout rate. But he's so positively perfect for his current role, and is allowed to affect so many more games presently than he would as a closer. In my season preview I projected that J.J. Putz would be the ideal choice to take over as closer, but he unfortunately has only supplied flashes of greatness this year, and has not performed at the consistent level demanded by the role. Moving Matt* will weaken the Sox almost as much in the 7th and 8th innings as it will strengthen them in the 9th.
*(Thornton has been far too awesome for far too long to not have a good nickname. Is it just because the name 'Thornton' is already so imposing? He deserves something. The man is a a walking campaign for setup men to be given more consideration for the All-Star team).
It would be fun if the problems with this team stopped with their moody, inexplicably cocksure, and corpulent closer. Bobby is a remarkably inviting target due to his attitude that is rich with entitlement, resistant to suggestion, and offputtingly self-serious. I myself have to admit that I am not above this mentality, as Bobby is by far my least-favorite player on the team. However, I must digress...well...do I? Can I mention that Bobby's listed weight has jumped 25 pounds since he started in Chicago, and that the only reason we were able to acquire him for $20K off waivers from the Angels is because he washed out of their organization for being a knucklehead? Bobby got suspended repeatedly for showing up to games hung over, getting into a bar fight, and because he just wouldn't stop bringing beer on the team bus. Wow, a fat drunk who gets pissy whenever someone suggests to him that it's not advantageous for professional athletes to be fat drunks. Can I buy his jersey?
Anyway, as I was saying with the other problems. The Sox blew a boatload of opportunities Sunday. Even though fewer players are registering right now as complete non-entities (Ramirez and Beckham, more on them later), this team still seems to wait around for Paul Konerko, Andruw Jones, or Alex Rios to do something. It was the formula for victory on Saturday night, and it was a running theme Sunday afternoon as well. This is fine to a degree, every team has their impact players and Quentin took a step toward being one of them today, but a trait of the '05 team was a feeling of shared responsibility. Everyone in the lineup down to Juan Uribe was capable of carrying the team for short stretches of time. Until the Sox can still be a dangerous team with Alexei Ramirez up in an RBI situation, or A.J. Pierzynski, or even God willing, Mark Teahen, this offense won't really work.
In some ways, today a good outing for Gavin Floyd, as we got prolonged glimpses of why he's an entrenched member of this rotation. As he has all year, Floyd racked up a high rate of strikeouts, but also went through a stretch in the 3rd inning where it seemed like he was at a loss for how to approach hitters. Credit goes to Floyd for not allowing a hit after the third inning, including striking out the next four batters after yielding the home run to Vernon Wells. Hopefully for his next start in Kansas City, he'll need less balls sent whistling over his head before his mid-game realization occurs.
Juan Pierre continues to be on the uptick. He's hitting .342 in his last 8 games and has his once subterranean average up to .230. Unfortunately with his walk rate, Pierre really needs to hit .300 to be worthwhile in the leadoff spot, and the fact that he still hasn't had an extra-base hit so far this season is simply horrifying in every way.
Gordon Beckham needs to be sent to the minors. Anyone who watched him throw a tantrum in the dugout on Sunday, or flip out at the home plate umpire after he clearly went around on a 3-2 pitch in the dirt with the bases loaded to end the inning knows that his level of frustration at this point is unworkable. It makes no sense for him to be here. He's still young, he won't be too insulted by the move, and we're only prolonging his return to form by keeping him in the majors. In the meantime, he's killing us at the No. 2 spot in the order. Nix played well today, and is a competent defender. It doesn't have to be long, just a couple of weeks so that Beckham can be reminded what it's like to make solid contact again. It's not a big deal.
It's hard to really get a bead on Alexei Ramirez, probably because his success has always been mystifying to begin with. He swings at everything, and swings big, so he should theoretically be a rather terrible hitter. In his breakout rookie season, it really took him quite a while to get going, and that was also the case last season. So perhaps he's still cold, perhaps he still needs someone to cook him a hot meal, perhaps he's the only person on Earth who should eat a KFC Double Down. He made an absolutely dreadful error in the 9th inning that really should have allowed the Blue Jays to break open that inning even more but really, it was clear from the body language of everyone on the team that the Sox were going to lose after Fred Lewis hit that ball to Urbana.
And what an utterly disastrous note to start a 7-game road trip on. The Sox will have plenty to ruminate on before their first game in Minnesota on Tuesday to face the Twins who now have Joe Mauer back. First, their bullpen situation just became more of a mess than before. Second, they remain six games below .500 after failing to make up any ground during a 7-game homestand versus two beatable teams. Better yet, they're six games under despite having played almost 60% of their games at home so far, where their record is a poor 9-10 as opposed to their simply putrid 4-9 road record. Finally, Jenks' demotion should register as the first shot across the bow for a team full of veterans whose struggles are more likely to result in them changing cities than the demotion that Gordon Beckham can anticipate. The Sox don't have many gems in the farm system, and even fewer at need positions, but if Kenny Williams can be counted on for anything, it's pulling off a slapdash series of quick deals.
It seemed like all of these things were already weighing on the Sox minds near the bottom of the 9th inning today. The eschewed digging in and trying to rally against a closer they had laid the first blown save of the season on just two nights ago, and chose instead to sulk in shock over what had just happened, and failing that, complain to the umpires. In fact, complaining to umpires has been a theme all season for this team, and when I think of teams complaining to umpires, I think of the 2004 Cubs. Now the '04 Cubs were a LOT better than this White Sox team, but they similarly seemed to resort to blaming the men in blue when they began to crumble under high expectations. I should add that the Cubs were reacting to a late-season slide that cost them a playoff spot, and a lot of their incidents were simply LaTroy Hawkins going completely nuts, but I can only imagine that the White Sox are breaking under the realization that they are already falling out of relevance this season. While it's nice to know that the team is self-aware, I'd be happier if their sense of urgency manifested itself in the form of steely determination rather than lashing out at random people, or in Gordon Beckham's case, that piece of gum he threw across the dugout.