Three Up, Three Down: Castro, Samardzija the good; Lester, Danks the ugly
Two weeks in, neither Chicago baseball club has hit their stride – yet, anyway. White Sox pitching has been bad with a team ERA among the league’s lowest and a lineup that isn’t quite ready to bail them out on the regular. The Cubs were playing well enough to boast the fact they had not yet lost a series this season… until they lost on Sunday to the Padres after blowing their another lead late in the game.
Both teams are drastically different than a season ago. It’s natural to see slow starts from the new faces in new places like Jon Lester and Jeff Samardzija, to some degree. Entering the third full week of the season, now is the time when players begin to find their rhythms and practice routines that will get them in mid-season form. Nonetheless, let’s take a look at the highs and lows of last week.
Starlin Castro – I wrote this heading into last week about Castro: “… he’s off to the hottest start offensively on the Cubs. He’s answered when the Cubs have needed an offensive boost.” Well, nothing’s changed. Recording eight big hits last week, including a walk-off single off one of baseball’s best relievers Craig Kimbrel, Castro is still the catalyst this offense needs when its younger stars swing and miss as much as they do. It’s an area Castro needs to improve on too, and he did last week, striking out twice and walking twice. Starlin Castro is forcing Cubs brass to look at ulterior options for their other highly touted prospect not named Kris Bryant, middle infielder Addison Russell. Castro, still just 25, is done proving himself; he’s made his case on why he needs to be mentioned with names like Soler, Russell, Bryant, Lester, as vital pieces of a championship future.
Jeff Samardzija – I think Samardzija earned a spot on this list after he pitched well enough to win his start on Friday despite pitching opposite a tremendous start from Detroit Tigers lefty David Price. Taking the mound Friday, Samardzija had the chore of facing one of the League’s most dangerous lineups after back-to-back shaky outings against divisional rivals Kansas City and Minnesota. On Friday, he showcased the stuff the White Sox believe makes their pitching rotation one of the League’s grittiest. Samardzija struck out seven Tigers in eight innings and did not walk a batter in the start. After 106 pitches, the Robin Ventura turned to his bullpen for the ninth inning and it spoiled Samardzija’s work, but it’s still nice to see more than just a glimpse of the premier pitcher the White Sox traded for in the offseason.
Jorge Soler – Despite striking out a team-high 10 times last week, Soler’s seven RBIs last week and exciting two home run performance last Monday puts him on this list. The Cubs offense grinds only as well as Soler is playing. He recorded a base hit in all six games he played in last week. And with the promotion of Bryant, Soler’s bat is as malleable as ever to head coach Joe Maddon. Stick Soler anywhere in the lineup and he’ll be productive. When Bryant returns to his Spring Training form (and that’s when, not if), Soler is going to be the batter that reaps the benefits as either the team’s primary run scorer or the big bat who provides the encore.
Robin Ventura – Tied 1-1 in the bottom of the ninth inning on Friday at Comerica Park, Nick Castellanos led the inning off with a base hit to Sox right fielder Avisail Garcia and attempted to turn the surefire single into a double, but Garcia’s throw seemed to cut down the Tigers third baseman. However, the catch and tag applied by Sox shortstop Alexei Ramirez was anything but obvious and umpire Brian O’Nora believed Ramirez missed him altogether. But, this is precisely why the MLB brought along the advent of the coach’s challenge. Instant replay tells us Ramirez did just enough to clip the cleat of the sliding Castellanos before safely arriving at second base. When Ventura left the dugout to hear O’Nora’s side of things, the umpire assured the White Sox skipper no tag was applied and his word was good enough for Ventura. In the end, the Tigers’ Jose Iglesias drove pinch-runner Andrew Romine home and the game was over later that inning. Better to use that challenge than go back to Chicago with it.
Jon Lester – Lester made two starts last week and neither went well. On Monday, Lester needed a heroic performance from Jorge Soler to escape a second-straight loss to start his season, allowing 10 hits and six runs – all earned – in six innings to the Reds on Monday. He pitched again on Sunday at Wrigley against the Padres and allowed three more runs on six hits and two walks in 5.1 innings. After an abbreviated spring, Lester is just warming up this season, though, maybe he should have spent some more time in Arizona recovering from a “dead arm” that prevented him from participating in the full Spring Training.
John Danks – The White Sox back-end starters might be more important than its front-line staff this season. The Sox are desperate for Danks and Hector Noesi to handle the keys to the mound when Chris Sale, Samardzija and Jose Quintana pass them along. But Danks has had consecutive outings where he’s allowed four runs in less than six innings of work. His work in Kansas City on April 9 gave optimists something to chew on as Danks pitched well for at least most of his start. But on Wednesday, Danks left his changeup high in the strike zone consistently and allowed six hits in 4.2 innings en route to his second loss in as many starts in 2015. Yesterday, news broke that the White Sox intend to bring up lefty stud and the team’s biggest prospect Carlos Rodon and insert him in the bullpen. But it’s obvious that his job as a pro will be front-of-the-rotation arm with his big fastball and knockout slider – general manager Rick Hahn is putting Noesi and Danks on notice.