Ventura pushing right buttons for White Sox
Somebody wrote in a national magazine before the 2012 season began "It's going to be a long year for the White Sox." That said, they were rightfully picked to finish last in the American League Central.
The glorious summer of 2005, when the South Siders won the World Series, seems like eons ago.
But this "long year" has turned into a sensational, remarkable two months for rookie manager Robin Ventura and the White Sox.
They jetted out of St. Petersburg late Wednesday night after sweeping the Rays en route to their eighth straight victory. To put the sweep in perspective, the Rays are tied with the Orioles for first place in the rugged AL East.
Oh, yes. These White Sox are also in first place.
As aristocrats such as the Yankees, Tigers, Phillies, et al, struggle, it's the Nationals, Orioles, Indians and, yes, the White Sox who've made the first two months of 2012 so intriguing.
To say the White Sox are a bit giddy is an exaggeration, but don't blame Ventura if he pinches himself after each win. This team that was supposed to be retooling sits atop the division. It opens a three-game series at U. S. Cellular Field against Seattle on Friday night.
Ask Ventura what has turned the season's dismal outlook to one of baseball's best stories this year and I'm not certain he has answers.
"It's baseball, just baseball," he said the other night, sitting in the dugout at Tropicana Field. "This can be a cruel game. A lot of things have come together for us."
Ventura -- always even-tempered, always methodical -- believes the most recent success, the first time the White Sox have won eight in a row since July 2010, can be traced to the bottom half of the lineup producing.
"This has taken pressure off the top of the order," he said. "It has made a big difference. Yes, everything has come together."
A few hours after that remark, it was the lower third of the batting order that propelled the White Sox to a 4-3 victory at Tropicana Field and consecutive sweeps for the first time since 2010.
Alexei Ramirez, the No. 8 batter, drove in two runs with two doubles. Dayan Viciedo, batting seventh, had two singles and a double in the 11-hit attack.
By comparison, Paul Konerko, who leads the Major Leagues with a .381 batting average, managed just a first-inning single and Adam Dunn, who's been surging with 16 homers and 37 RBIs during an impressive comeback, struck out four times in the final game against the Rays.
"Usually the mentality is to win a series, two out of three," Ventura said. "When a team feels like you have it in your grasp, you want to close it out. That's what we were able to do."
There could have been the expected letdown against the Rays after the White Sox swept then first-place Cleveland, one of 2012's surprise teams, last weekend.
"After a big weekend at home against Cleveland, it was important to come down here and not let down," said Konerko. "The bottom of the lineup really carried us in this series. We had a weekend [against Cleveland] where everything went right. Usually, after something like that you usually go 180 degrees the other way. So it was nice to get the wins here."
Against the Rays, there was a moment in the second inning that can send most young teams reeling. The White Sox, up 1-0, loaded the bases with nobody out and failed to score.
They shrugged that off and built a 3-1 lead with two runs in the third and another in the fifth.
"The good news is they didn't look at that as like a sign that it's not going to go your way today," said Ventura. "Teams can get frustrated leaving guys on base, especially situations like that. It's a credit to them they just kept battling."
Ventura, who had no managerial experience when owner Jerry Reinsdorf and GM Kenny Williams hired him, is a key to the success.
I can't think of anyone more the opposite of former White Sox skipper Ozzie Guillen than Ventura. The flamboyant Guillen is a non-stop talker; he speaks before he thinks. Ventura is a man of few words, but with this young team, his style is perfect.
"He gives us the freedom to be us and do our thing, but there is definitely a boundary," says pitcher John Danks, who's close to returning from the disabled list. "He's the boss, and he's done a good job of being the boss. No one is going to cross Robin knowing that not only him, but the entire staff will come down on you."
Ventura keeps coming back to his "baseball is baseball" philosophy.
Win or lose, he wants the players to play the game correctly.
"There's a correct way to play this game, and that is what I want," he said. "If we do everything the right way and lose, that's baseball. I have little patience when it's not played correctly."
Konerko and catcher A.J. Pierzynski are the only players who were with the White Sox when they beat the Astros in the 2005 World Series.
Konerko cautions knocking off the Rays should not be indicative the White Sox are that much better.
"There are no pushovers in the American League," he said. "I just think you catch teams at different times. They [Rays] didn't have a good series swinging the bat. We could leave here and they could get hot tomorrow. Sometimes you catch a good team in a bad three games. You need that kind of luck when you play Tampa, the Yankees, the Rangers or teams like that. They're all going to be there at the end."
Sweeps, especially against the Indians and Rays, are great, but as Dunn says, what really counts is getting "to play into October."
If April and May are an indication, that might not be out of the question for Ventura's White Sox.
Hal Bodley is the senior correspondent for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.