James Baldwin, a 24-year-old rookie righthanded pitcher for the Chicago White Sox, took a deep breath to calm himself before his first pitch last Saturday afternoon. Here he was at a sold-out Camden Yards, starting against a loaded Baltimore Orioles lineup with his mother, Lucille, and about 30 friends and relatives in the stands after they drove six hours from Southern Pines, N.C. "It's the first time my mom has ever seen me pitch in the big leagues," Baldwin said later. "A sellout crowd, the Orioles, Camden Yards. I was pumped."
Good thing Lucille caught up with her son in Baltimore and not another of the stops Chicago had made during the previous three weeks. Given the level of competition the White Sox faced during that time, it might have been difficult for her to fathom that James actually had left Triple A Nashville, where he most often pitched the past three seasons, for the Show. Until last Friday, Chicago had not faced a team with a winning record for 25 days. The White Sox tore through that stretch with a 16-5 record against the Milwaukee Brewers, the Detroit Tigers, the Toronto Blue Jays and the Boston Red Sox, including seven wins without a loss against the Tigers, an achievement one Chicago player dismissed as "beating a Triple A team." That's life in the bottom-heavy American League this season, where at week's end only six teams were on track to fight it out for the four playoff spots.
The big question in the Central Division is this: Is Chicago a real threat to the powerful Cleveland Indians? Based on the White Sox's weekend work in Baltimore, where they swept the Orioles, the answer is an emphatic yes.
After riding a pair of solid pitching performances by Alex Fernandez and Baldwin to victories last Friday and Saturday, Chicago outslugged Baltimore 12-9 on Sunday. Those wins, coupled with Cleveland's 8-6 loss to the California Angels on Sunday, moved the White Sox (39-21) into a first-place tie with the Indians, the defending American League champions.
"Last year we couldn't catch a cab or a plane to catch the Indians," says Chicago closer Roberto Hernandez, of the Sox's third-place finish last season, 30 games back of the first-place Tribe. "When this year started, nobody even gave us a chance against Cleveland, which I understood. It was supposed to be a runaway. But right now we're in the back of the Indians' minds. They're hearing footsteps."
The White Sox prefer to limit their public discussions about the Indians. Says first baseman Frank Thomas, who is having a monster year even by his tyrannosaurus standards, "My take on Cleveland? I have none. Sure, they're still the team to beat. But we're not worried about those guys. We're worried only about us, about taking care of ourselves."
Still, the Central is a two-team race involving the clubs with the two best records in the league. Chicago knows that Cleveland's pitching has been unreliable enough for the Indians to consider signing lefthander Greg Swindell, whom the Houston Astros released last week and whom the White Sox ignored because they deemed his fastball lifeless. They also know that combustible Cleveland slugger Albert Belle, who has been disciplined three times in the past four months by the league and the commissioner's office, is only one flare-up away from a severe suspension. Belle is currently appealing a five-game suspension for his role in inciting a bench-clearing brawl in a game against the Brewers two weeks ago. "We know when he's out, that's a chance to get ahead of them," says Chicago lefthander Wilson Alvarez.
The White Sox are so focused on Cleveland that Terry Bevington, Chicago's cautious manager, let it slip that he tweaked his rotation nearly a month in advance so he will have his best pitchers throwing against the Indians when the two teams play eight games in 11 days in late June and early July. After the White Sox's ace, righthander Fernandez, threw 2⅓ innings in a game against the Tigers that was rained out on June 1, Bevington didn't pitch him again until six days later in Baltimore so that Fernandez would be on track to pitch twice against Cleveland before the All-Star break.
Says Chicago pitcher Kevin Tapani, who signed with the Sox as a free agent last winter and had a 6-3 record with a 3.10 ERA, the third best in the American League at week's end, "The reason I signed with the White Sox is that they flat-out told me they were competing against Cleveland," he says. "The other teams in the division I talked to told me, 'If everything falls in place, we can make a run at the wild card.' Chicago was the only team not conceding anything to Cleveland."
Given the White Sox's 1993 West Division title and their first-place standing in the Central in '94 when the strike shut down that season, its 68-76 record last year qualified as a collapse. In '95, Chicago committed 25 errors in losing eight of its first 10 games. "It was so contagious, you began to think, Is it my turn next to make an error?" says third baseman Robin Ventura. Alvarez, Fernandez and Jason Bere, who is currently on the disabled list with an elbow injury, weren't ready to pitch after the strike-shortened spring training. And the idea that Chris Sabo, the White Sox's cleanup hitter behind Thomas on Opening Day, or John Kruk could replace the bat of Julio Franco, a mainstay of '94 who had left for Japan, was preposterous.