White Sox savoring a Central surprise

  • Article by: JOE CHRISTENSEN , Star Tribune
  • Updated: September 14, 2012 - 11:28 PM

Chicago has shocked everyone by camping in first place, and A.J. Pierzynski has been a big reason why.

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Chicago White Sox' A.J. Pierzynski scores on a single by Alexei Ramirez in the sixth inning off Minnesota Twins' Kyle Waldrop in a baseball game Friday, Sept. 14, 2012, in Minneapolis.

Photo: Jim Mone, Associated Press - Ap

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A White Sox team predicted to lose 95 games this year by Sports Illustrated arrived at Target Field on Friday sitting right where it has for most of the season -- first place.

But catcher A.J. Pierzynski wasn't puffing out his chest, bragging about how this team has proved prognosticators wrong.

"If I was an outsider looking at our team after the year we had last year, I could see exactly where they were coming from," Pierzynski said before Chicago's 6-0 victory over the Twins. "[Jake] Peavy was hurt. We lost [Mark] Buehrle. Our bullpen was super young. We had a bunch of hitters coming off not-so-great years."

The Tigers were consensus favorites to run away with the American League Central, but they've spent the season underachieving, and with 2 1/2 weeks remaining, the White Sox lead Detroit by one game in a two-team dogfight.

Chicago has five former Twins on its roster. Pierzynski and Jesse Crain are thriving. Francisco Liriano, Orlando Hudson and Philip Humber? Not so much.

Liriano is 2-1 with a 5.53 ERA since getting traded July 28 and wound up in the bullpen after issuing 15 walks in his past three starts. He made a relief appearance Tuesday, and all three batters he faced reached base.

The White Sox listed him as their scheduled starter for Friday, but when Thursday's game against Detroit was postponed, they gave Friday's start to Cy Young candidate Chris Sale. Liriano didn't expect to start in this series when he arrived at Target Field, and he didn't sound too disappointed.

"We're in a situation right now where we have to use our best guy, whoever's pitching better," Liriano said. "I've been in the bullpen before, so it's not something new to me."

Shortly after Liriano said this, he learned he'd be starting Saturday. Manager Robin Ventura said, after a long talk on the plane, the team decided to give Jose Quintana two days of extra rest before facing Detroit in Monday's make-up game.

Liriano always tantalized the Twins with his potential but frustrated them with his inconsistency.

"I don't have the frustration, but you see he's got great stuff," Ventura said. "We've still got time to see it. That's the way I look at it."

Meanwhile, Pierzynski is batting .280 with a career-high 26 home runs. During spring training, he shared a residence with his former Twins teammate Doug Mientkiewicz, who works as a hitting coach in the Dodgers organization.

One night they were out to dinner, and Pierzynski predicted he was going to hit 20 home runs. His previous career high was 18.

"[Mientkiewicz] thought it was funny," Pierzynski said. "But it was just something I figured out last year, something with my hand positioning. It's a nice feeling now knowing I can go up there at any time and hit a home run.

"In the past, everything had to be perfect for me to hit one. This year, I can walk up there and feel dangerous."

He's not alone. The White Sox are the only team in the majors that has five players with at least 20 home runs -- Pierzynski, Adam Dunn (38), Alex Rios (23), Paul Konerko (22) and Dayan Viciedo (20).

With Dunn and Peavy back in All-Star form and Rios vastly improved, the White Sox are reminding people how much talent they wasted last year. Sale has given them a starting pitcher capable of hanging with Justin Verlander on his best night.

The other difference is Ventura. Chicago's eight seasons under former manager Ozzie Guillen included the 2005 World Series title and another AL Central crown in 2008, and things never were dull because of Guillen.

Pierzysnki said it's hard to measure how much of an impact a manager makes, but said, "[Ventura's] definitely been a calming influence on a lot of guys.

''He's been the same every day. He's himself, just like Ozzie was Ozzie. You don't want a manager to be somebody he's not. Robin's more laid back, but players respect him and play for him."

Indeed, they're playing a lot better than people expected.

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