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White Sox bats showing signs of life as team-wide slump recedes

By Scott Miller | Senior Baseball Columnist

So you think playing in the major leagues is all advanced equations and performing incredibly difficult tasks in impossibly repetitive numbers under an immensely hot spotlight?

Well, yeah.

Or, it's this:

Like most of the rest of the White Sox lineup, shortstop Alexei Ramirez has been so baffled at the plate this season that hitting coach Jeff Manto was moved to devise a special plan for him last week in Minnesota.

That plan consisted of hitting the baseball the opposite way, to right field, in every … single … at-bat … for the foreseeable future. No matter the situation.

Maybe it would be 20 times, Manto figured. Maybe 25.

“You have to be creative,” Manto said. “These players want to take ownership of a plan.”

In a brutally unforgiving start, what most of the White Sox hitters have taken ownership of is a whole lot of routine ground balls, harmless pop-ups and a barrelful of strikeouts (hello, Adam Dunn and Alejandro De Aza).

Meanwhile, the Indians, re-energized under new manager Terry Francona, have seized ownership of the AL Central.

The loaded Tigers trot out Miguel Cabrera and Prince Fielder.

The White Sox?

“First team I've been around where eight guys were not hitting all at the same time,” Manto said. “It's testing everyone's patience, that's for sure.

“It's testing our ability to stick together, and to stick with a plan.”

Winners of five of their past seven games heading into Tuesday night's contest with the Red Sox, there are signs Chicago is beginning to pull out of the season-long funk.

Paul Konerko (.220) is hitting line drives the other way more frequently, perhaps a sign that his timing is coming back and hits will start dropping. De Aza (48 strikeouts) is bunting a little more. Dunn (.172, 54 whiffs, 11 homers) is making more contact (no whiffs in three of his past six games!), which has resulted in him going 9 for 25 (.360) with five homers, 13 RBI and six runs scored over his past seven games.

The overall numbers are ugly. The Sox rank last in the American League in runs scored, on-base percentage and RBIs. They're 14th in slugging percentage. In their first 20 games this season, the Sox hit an abysmal .161 with runners in scoring position.

Yet as hot as the Indians have been and as loaded as the Tigers are, nobody has buried Robin Ventura's club. Despite the abysmal offense and uncharacteristically sloppy defense (the Sox have committed an error in seven of their past 12 games and rank fifth in the majors), Chicago, at 20-23, is just six games back.

“You go and look at last year, and we were in about the same shape,” starter Jake Peavy said. “There's a long way to go.

“But we've got to get going.”

Indeed, the Sox record after 43 games in 2012 was just a tick better than it is now, 21-22. And they were 3 1/2 games back, and they stayed in the race all the way into the last week of the season.

Things figure to get better when second baseman Gordon Beckham (disabled since April 10 after surgery on his left hand) and starter John Danks return. Danks, as colleague Jon Heyman reports, should start Friday.

Then …

“Hopefully, me and Paul can get back on track,” Dunn said. “I've never seen a team with eight guys struggling at the same time.

“The good news is that we've been able to hang in there. I'm telling you, five games [back], six games ... that's nothing.”

The worry with Konerko, of course, is that he's 37 and is due to slow down one of these years. Ventura, though, said what he's seeing is not the erosion caused by age.

“When he's swinging or doing anything, there's not an alarm that goes off,” Ventura said. “Watching him swing, it's not, ‘Oh, this is not it.'

“Part of it is he knows what he should be doing.”

Konerko called one of the days this weekend in Anaheim a “good day to build on” based on a couple of hard-hit outs.

He also thinks it is way too early to render final judgments, both with himself and the team.

“We want to get playing our best for a sustained amount of time before worrying about anything else,” he said.

Fair enough. And this past week, the five wins in seven games, the reversal of some things at the plate, is giving them hope.

Aside from Dunn, Alex Rios has produced a career-high 15-game hitting streak, during which he is hitting .383 (23 for 60) with four homers and 12 RBI. Dayan Viciedo is hitting .429 (21 for 49) with two homers and 10 RBI over his past 15 games.

And Ramirez? No longer under direct orders to dump the baseball into one specific area of the field, Ramirez is hitting .385 (15 for 39) with four RBI and eight runs scored over his past nine games.

The start of his hot streak pretty much coincides with Manto's hit-to-right plan.

“It's just the way it goes,” the hitting coach said. “I don't see it happening much longer.

“I think a lot of teams are saying the same thing: ‘Get them out of town before they get hot.'”

 
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