CHICAGO – Only five games into a season carrying division title expectations, the White Sox’s defense collectively owes the pitching staff a fruit basket for keeping them above .500.
Actually, make it six fruit baskets – one for each error they’ve committed this season. Too many times Sox pitchers, for the most part, have worked around trouble brought on by poor defense.
Manager Robin Ventura won’t defend the Sox’s uninspiring early season defensive performance. The South Siders recorded another error in Saturday’s 4-3 win against the Seattle Mariners, moving them into a tie with the Los Angeles Angels, Toronto Blue Jays and Washington Nationals for most in the majors.
“I don't want them to get used to it, I can tell you that,” Ventura said. “For us to win games, we're going to have to play good defense. You want the pitchers to pick them up when it doesn't happen, but I'd rather it be the other way around where the defense is picking up the pitchers.”
Jeff Keppinger became the latest fielder to mishandle a ball. His fielding error at first base with two outs in the second inning allowed Raul Ibanez to score easily from third. Instead of corralling the grounder and tossing it to pitcher Dylan Axelrod, who ran to cover first, Seattle took a 1-0 lead on the play. Axelrod shook off the Keppinger’s mistake and struck out the next batter, Kelly Shoppach, on four pitches to end the inning. But the unearned run was the Sox’s fourth in five games, which is unacceptable even this early in the season.
Four of the Sox's five starting pitchers have been tagged with an unearned run. This coming after the Sox (3-2) posted a major-league low 30 unearned runs last season.
“I don’t think about the [defense’s miscues] at all when I’m out there,” Axelrod said. “I just try to make my pitches. We’re going to play good defense. I think it’s just a coincidence, maybe getting here to a new field after being in Arizona. The conditions are a little different, but we’re going to be fine on defense.”
There isn’t just one player at fault for the Sox’s defensive lapses. Six players have tallied an error, including outfielders Dayan Viciedo and Dewayne Wise. The mistakes have been especially frustrating because the Sox are coming off a season in which they were the best defensive team in baseball. They committed only 70 errors in nearly 6,000 total chances for a .988 fielding percentage.
The Sox won’t use the excuse of poor playing conditions, from the strong, swirling winds to temperatures reaching 40 degrees or colder they’ve endured, because their opponent is playing in the same environment.
“When the wind is like that and the weather is cold, it makes a difference, but you have to adapt,” Sox outfielder Alex Rios said. “If you don’t adapt to those situations, it’s going to make it even tougher on you.”
The errors impact more than potential runs crossing the plate; they also increase the pitchers' pitch count. The six errors have forced Sox pitchers to throw nearly 27 extra pitches. And in some instances the error cause innings to get out of control. Jose Quintana’s fielding error in Friday's loss ultimately ended his start early when he didn't bounce back, allowing five straight hits and five runs.
The Sox can't play bad defense if they want to overcome the reigning division champion Detroit Tigers. Defense was their strength last year when they nearly won the AL Central, and they will need it to be one again to contend in 2013.
“We got off to a rocky start defensively, missing cut off men, missing routine ground balls,” Wise said. “We just need to buckle down. I believe in all the guys in here and I know Robin does, too. We can get it done, it’s just going out there and doing it.”
• Meghan Montemurro covers the White Sox and Cubs for Shaw Media. Write to her at firstname.lastname@example.org. Read the Sox Insider and Inside the Cubs blogs at NWHerald.com and on Twitter @Sox_Insider and @InsideTheCubs.