Junior still shows flashes, but he's hardly ignited the White Sox
MINNEAPOLIS -- Stepping back into the batter's box this week at the Hubert H. Humphrey Metrodome for the first time since 2001, Ken Griffey Jr. has had moments that have felt decidedly like old times.
Through the first two days of the Chicago White Sox's increasingly desperate series against the Minnesota Twins, for instance, Griffey had driven in all of his team's runs, the sort of "get on my back, I'll carry us" stat that optimistic fans and (be honest now) teammates had in mind when the future Hall of Famer showed up on July 31.
Then you look closer at that output. You see that "all" in this case means just five runs in two defeats. And any old times had been matched by simply old times.
Three of the five runs came Tuesday, on a double-play groundout in the second inning that didn't even earn Griffey an RBI and a two-run homer in the ninth that was the politically trendy lipstick on a pig of a 9-3 stinker.
Two more came Wednesday in the 3-2 setback that left Chicago's AL Central lead at a mere half-game. Griffey's chopper down the first base line in the second inning scored Jim Thome but might have dribbled foul had Twins pitcher Nick Blackburn left it alone. In the fourth, Griffey uncoiled a time-capsule swing, lashing his 611th home run into the upper deck in right. It might not have meant much as memorabilia -- the local yokel who caught the treasure tossed it back onto the field below -- but it did stir memories. Griffey always had treated the maligned Metrodome as friendly confines, his dome away from dome during his Seattle years, with 22 home runs and 62 RBIs -- his fattest totals in any park in which he's worn gray -- and a .295 average in 251 at-bats.
"He doesn't seem to be moving all that well," Twins first base coach Jerry White said. "But we coaches were just talking about the old horses, the old stallions. If you give them one [pitch] in that one spot, they still can get after it."
Seven years between visits, it is an older, more mortal Griffey back in town this week. Let's not forget the ball hit to center Tuesday by Twins DH Jason Kubel, a shot that Griffey might have snagged in his hip pocket way back when, but played into a triple now. There were his two quiet at-bats later in Wednesday's game, a groundout to lead off the sixth against Craig Breslow, then a one-hopper to first in the eighth off Jose Mijares.
Granted, Mijares was the third of three pitchers Griffey was facing for the first time, 19 seasons and more 9,305 at-bats into his career. But if it's clutch hitting the White Sox lack these days, then letting a rookie off the hook who was a New Britain (Class AA) Rock Cat three weeks ago, with Twins closer Joe Nathan lathered up and ready to shut down the ninth was a failure for the White Sox center fielder.
"I've got to go out there and see him a couple more times. He has the advantage, not seeing him before," Griffey said afterward, barely speaking above a whisper. "It's one of those things. You just try not to give any at-bats away."
In almost two months since Chicago GM Kenny Williams acquired Griffey at the non-waiver trading deadline, the 38-year-old has batted .250 with three home runs, 18 RBIs, 15 walks and 23 strikeouts in 120 at-bats. His home runs in this series were his first on consecutive days since June 2007, but again, the White Sox lost both nights. They are 26-23 since Griffey arrived versus 60-48 prior. You would never guess that he's the one aching to finally reach a World Series, rather than this team that won in 2005.
Might he be pressing? "That was early, when I first got here," Griffey told me last night. "Now it's just a matter of me [fitting in]. I've got to do the small things just like everybody else. Get 'em over and get 'em in."
Clearly, his new team's inability to gain traction isn't all on him. But the qualifiers that accompanied the deal evidently weren't just sandbagging, either.
"I said when we got him, if people think Junior's gonna carry this ball club, they're wrong," manager Ozzie Guillen said. "Junior has played good enough the last two weeks and that's a guy who's gonna be there for us."
Apparently, even if the fans, media or anyone else thinks that, say, Brian Anderson would be a better defensive choice to roam the turf at the Metrodome. "Ken Griffey is gonna be in center field," Guillen insisted before the game Wednesday. "I make the lineup. If people out there don't like it, don't watch the White Sox. ... If I have Torii Hunter out there, it's another thing."
Still, it's not what the Sox had in mind, hoping deep down that for a few games, maybe a week, Griffey could wake up the echoes and nail down a division title that now is so imperiled. The guys in the other clubhouse, where deadline deals either don't happen or subtract more than they add, sure expected more.
"When they pick up a superstar-caliber player like that," Nathan said, "it's never [a reaction] of 'That's awesome.' It's more like 'That's one more guy they've got in the lineup we've got to worry about.' You never want to see your rival team pick up a guy like that -- you wish you could add him to your team. But at the same time, they had a pretty good lineup before he got there.
"He's a very good guy. It's nice just seeing him healthy, seeing him contribute and adding to his home run totals, even though we wish he wouldn't do it here."
Nice but not quite Junior.