Baseball enthusiasm tends to ebb and flow into and out of one's consciousness in a five-team sports city, particularly when the White Sox and Cubs each enter a new season with tempered expectations. They'll always be a sector of the population that romanticizes isolated power and speaks of Frank Thomas' strike-shortened 1994 season as an undeterred civic tragedy, but it occasionally takes a bit of added motivation for the rest of us to get in baseball mode. This is especially the case when you're coming off back-to-back heartbreaks.
Last season, that little, necessary push never occurred. The Cubs sludged their way to a 91-loss campaign, while the South Siders reached a high-water mark of just three games over .500 during a season when most anticipated they could win the division. For a moment, it looked like we could be in for a second consecutive forgotten sports summer in Chicago. But just when you were already starting to plan that weekend getaway in beautiful Bourbonnais, Illinois, the White Sox transformed into the hottest team in baseball.
On May 16, the Sox were 17-21, trailing the Cleveland Indians in the A.L. Central by 4.5 games. Since then, Chicago has risen to the top of the division by winning 14 of 16, including sweeps over then-division leaders Cleveland and Tampa Bay. The Mariners halted the White Sox's winning streak at nine this weekend, but Chris Sale entered Sunday and threw a brilliant complete game performance to give the Sox another series victory and keep the good times rolling.
Now, the White Sox head into the start of a three-game home series with the Toronto Blue Jays at 31-23, owners of baseball's fourth best winning percentage. With round two of interleague play on the horizon, a portion of the schedule the South Siders annually rule with totalitarian power, it doesn't look like the winning ways of the White Sox are going to be coming to an end anytime soon.
Where the question was once 'if a baseball season falls in the woods and no one is there to hear it, does it make a sound?', it's now: are the White Sox for real?
It's tough to answer with conviction, but it certainly feels like it. The Sox have played exactly one-third of their season, and the early returns are more promising than anyone could have imagined.
Even the best-case projections had the South Siders around .500 this season, and that was only if numerous things would go Chicago's way. Adam Dunn, Jake Peavy and Alex Rios had to come back from the dead. Paul Konerko and A.J. Pierzynski had to stave off regression for another year. Chris Sale and Dayan Viciedo had to begin cashing in on their immense potential. Somehow, all of this has happened for the White Sox through 33.3 percent of the season. At its best, this team can look like a monolithic juggernaut. They don't just beat teams, they blow them out.
These White Sox are not showing signs of being a fluke. Quite the contrary. Run differential is often said to be the best indicator of a team's true value. As the old saying goes, the Pythagorean Theorem don't lie. The Sox currently have the third best run differential in all of baseball at +40. Take a look at the rest of the A.L. Central: the Detroit Tigers have the second best mark in the division at -14. Negative 14! The second-place Indians, who no one expected to be any good, are -24 in run differential.
Chicago has done it with overall blitzkrieg of power hitting, power pitching and a young bullpen featuring several high-voltage arms. Paul Konerko, who may even get a statue before he retires, is leading the American League in batting average. Adam Dunn is leading all of baseball in walks before action starts on Monday. Chris Sale has the best ERA in the A.L. Jake Peavy is eighth in the same category. Most mind-blowing of all, the catcher platoon of Pierzynski and Tyler Flowers is on-pace to produce 33 home runs and 111 RBI.
Yes, that last stat will surely begin regressing to the mean at some point, but there's also a few players who should eventually overcome slow starts. Shortstop Alexei Ramirez has already started to heat up, as happens every season once the weather warms. Opening Day starter John Danks has battled injury and struggled mightily this season. Gavin Floyd hasn't been particularly good, either. Both of those pitchers have been too good for too long to underwhelm all season.
Perhaps most encouraging of all is that the Detroit Tigers aren't anything special. At least not yet. When the season started, the Tigers looked like the MLB's version of the Miami Heat: the star power at the top was so blinding, it was difficult to imagine any team in the Central overcoming it. And while Justin Verlander, Miguel Cabrera, Prince Fielder and Austin Jackson have each been great, the rest of the Detroit kind of sucks. The Tigers' is a lineup with several gaping holes. The rotation after Verlander has also been lackluster, as young starters Rick Porcello and Max Scherzer have failed to make the leap Sale has.
The Indians? Please. That team was never built to last. This division is there for the taking. There's still a long way to go before the postseason rolls around, but it's hard to discount the White Sox's chances at the moment.
Thank you for that, White Sox. We -- Chicago -- needed this, even if success on the South Side only appeases about 40 percent of this great sports city. Derrick Rose's torn ACL was the single worst moment in local sports since I've been alive. To sulk with that until the Bears started playing for real in September would have been very difficult. Instead, the White Sox are giving Chicago something to get excited about. Given the recent winning streak, Philip Humber's perfect game now feels like it occurred last season. Everything about these White Sox has changed over the last two weeks. From local afterthought to the hottest team in baseball in just 16 games.