After a 6-game home stand in Atlanta, the NL-best Braves travel to the South Side of the Windy City to face the surging Chicago White Sox. The Sox, led by outspoken manager Ozzie Guillen, are currently 34-34 and trail the Twins by 5.5 games in the AL Central. They come into the series winners of six straight, as they swept the lowly Pirates and Nationals. I'm guessing they'll receive a bit more of a challenge from the Braves, but hey, what do I know?
The White Sox are a below average club offensively. Alex Rios (.311, 13HRs, 35RBI) and Paul Konerko (.294, 17HRs, 48RBI) have been incredible for the Sox in 2010 and former-Brave Andruw Jones (.210, 10HRs, 22RBI) has performed decently when given an opportunity. They've certainly struggled as a whole, though. Carlos Quentin has been unimpressive (.215, 8HRs, 37 RBI) and they've gotten basically no production from Alexi Ramirez and Gordon Beckham. Catcher A.J. Pierzynski isn't much of a threat at the plate either and he's getting up there in age.
The Sox are 10th in runs scored in the AL, 12th in team batting average, 11th in team OBP and 10th in team slugging. Where they do excel is on the basepaths, where they've stolen 66 bases which is good for 2nd in the AL. Another thing the Sox do well is control the strike zone. They don't strike out very often (only 15.4% of the time) and know how to take a walk (8.7%). Despite the impressive coverage of the strike zone, I don't see Hanson, Hudson or Lowe having too much trouble with the White Sox hitters. Basically, if you don't let Konerko or Rios beat you, the Sox won't beat you.
The White Sox have a rotation anchored by veterans Mark Buehrle and Jake Peavy and it's rounded out nicely with Gavin Floyd, John Danks and Freddy Garcia. Closer Bobby Jenks has closed out 14 games for Chicago, but he's currently injured with a calf strain. It's still to be determinded if he'll be able to pitch in the 3-game series starting Tuesday. Besides Jenks, relievers Sergio Santos, JJ Putz and Matt Thorton have been very good. Tony Pena, Randy Williams and Scott Linebrink round out their bullpen and all three have been pretty mediocre this season.
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In the American League, the White Sox starters are 11th in ERA (4.62), but 5th in FIP (4.07). They're 10th in BABIP (.303), which is right around league average and 7th in WHIP (1.34) so they'll allow some baserunners. They do strike out quite a few and don't walk many (5th in K/BB ratio), so the Braves will need to continue their patience at the plate. All-in-all, pretty decent stuff from the White Sox and their starting pitchers.
Their bullpen is certainly better and they boast an impressive ERA of 3.94 (5th in the AL) and 3.49 FIP (1st in the AL). They're 8th in bullpen WHIP so they'll definitely give up some base runners. The Sox also have the highest BABIP in the AL (3.37), so they should be coming back down to earth sometime in the near future. Similar to the starting pitchers, the bullpen does a nice job striking out hitters while not walking many, as they're 3rd in K/BB ratio. The Braves have been fantastic in the later innings, but they'll probably need to do some early scoring if they want to win in Chicago.
Tuesday, June 22nd - 8:10EST: Tommy Hanson (7-3, 3.38 ERA, 3.26 FIP) vs. John Danks (6-5, 3.18 ERA, 3.41 FIP)
Tommy Hanson comes into Tuesday's game after dominating a potent Rays lineup in his last start. Hanson pitched 7 scoreless innings and only allowed 3 hits. Big Red had total command of all 4 of his pitches, as he struck out 6 while only walking 1.
John Danks, a lefty, also dominated in his last start, but did so against a weak Pirates lineup. He threw 8 innings of 2-run ball and only allowed 4 hits. Danks struck out 6 and walked 3.
Wednesday, June 23rd - 8:10 EST: Tim Hudson (7-2, 2.34 ERA, 4.29 FIP) vs. Mark Buehrle (5-6, 4.71ERA, 4.06 FIP)
Tim Hudson was his usual self in his last start: Nothing pretty or sexy about it, but he gets the job done. Huddy went 7 innings in his last start and despite allowing four hits and four walks, allowed only 1 run. Hudson did a great job of keeping the ball down in the zone and will need to continue this at hitter-friendly U.S. Cellular Field.
Mark Buehrle, also a lefty, went 7 and 1/3 innings in Pittsburgh during his last start and came away with the win. The Pirates were able to get 6 hits off the crafty veteran, but only scratched across 1 run. Buehrle had full command of his pitches as he struck out six while only walking one.
Thursday, June 24th - 2:05EST: Derek Lowe (9-5, 4.77 ERA, 4.32 FIP) vs. Gavin Floyd (2-7, 5.20 ERA, 3.67 FIP)
Derek Lowe was his normal, average self in his last start against the Royals. He went 6 and 1/3 innings and allowed three runs on six hits. Similar to other starts, Lowe didn't strike out many nor did he walk many. Just like Hudson, Lowe has to keep his sinker down in Chicago or they'll be sending moon shots over the outfield wall.
Gavin Floyd, a righty, pitched his heart out in his last start against Washington. He went pitch-for-pitch with Stephen Strasburg and threw 8 innings of 1-run ball. Floyd struck out five and only walked one, but it was against a weak Nationals lineup so take that as it is. He received a no-decision as the White Sox won in the 11th inning.
Questions of the Series:
1. How will the Braves hit against two left-handed pitchers? Fortunately, the Braves haven't seen too many lefties in the past few series, but that changes in Chicago.
2. How will Bobby use the DH? With the Braves facing two lefties, will he be able to use Eric Hinske as a DH or 1B? Will David Ross catch to try to slow the White Sox's base runners? Will Chipper get a few days off now that Omar Infante is healthy?
3. The White Sox beat up on the Pirates and Nationals and have won 6 in a row. How will they fare against one of the best teams in baseball?
4. Are the Braves at full health? Takashi Saito will be returning to the bullpen on Tuesday, Troy Glaus left Sunday's game with cramps and Yunel Escobar, Chipper Jones and Jason Heyward are all a bit nicked up. Will they be at full health?
5. Will the weather cooperate? They call it the Windy City, but it might as well be renamed the Rainy City. Thunderstorms are expected on Tuesday and Wednesday and there's a chance they'll linger around until Thursday as well. Go away rain.
The White Sox are playing better as of late, but so does everyone when they play the Nationals and Pirates. The Braves have been the hottest team in baseball in the last month and I fully expect them to continue their strong play in Chicago. I'm worried about facing two lefties, but I think they'll win on Tuesday and Wednesday after strong performances from Hanson and Hudson. Derek Lowe has been horribly inconsistent this year and I worry about him keeping the ball down in that hitter's paradise. Combine that with Gavin Floyd pitching very well and I think the Braves will drop the final game of the series.