The Real Deal
The White Sox have turned up an ace in polished young lefthander Mark Buehrle
Mark Buehrle and a half dozen White Sox rookie pitchers filed into the visitors' clubhouse at Cleveland's Jacobs Field each day last weekend wearing matching Hawaiian-style shirts emblazoned with multicolored White Sox-themed images. It was part of a late-season hazing ritual—the rookies had to wear the garish garments everywhere they went for a week. "It's not that bad when we're all together," said Buehrle, who technically isn't a rookie but was getting hazed like one because he's in his first full major league season. "It's even a good conversation starter when we go out. But if I'm by myself somewhere, I do feel I stand out."
With or without traffic-stopping casual wear, the lefthanded Buehrle's days of blending in are rapidly coming to an end. On a team stocked with promising young arms—through Sunday, Chicago had used a starter older than 25 in only 11 of 58 games since the All-Star break—Buehrle (rhymes with early) has emerged as the staff ace. Even after a rare rocky start, against the Indians on Sunday, in which he gave up seven earned runs in four innings without getting the decision, he was 13-7 with a 3.25 earned run average, the second lowest in the American League (behind the Mariners' Freddy Garcia). Buehrle, 22, had also held opponents to a league-low .219 batting average, and his ratio of 2.0 walks per nine innings was seventh best. "Being in the running for an ERA tide is pretty impressive for a young pitcher," says Chicago manager Jerry Manuel, "but what says a lot about him is that he's sustained a high level for an extended time."
This kind of performance was hardly expected when the White Sox inserted Buehrle into their rotation at the end of spring training. For one, he lacks a star pedigree. He was cut from the team at Francis Hollow North High in St. Charles, Mo., in his freshman and sophomore years, and his parents had to talk him into going out again as a junior. After a season at Jefferson (Mo.) Junior College he was drafted by the White Sox in the 38th round in 1998. He was impressive enough in the minors to receive a call-up in July 2000 and pitched well enough out of the bullpen (3-1,353 ERA) in the second half of the season to get a shot at starting this spring.
With poise, a deceptive three-quarters delivery and impeccable command, Buehrle has handcuffed opponents ever since, despite a less-than-overpowering arsenal. (His fastball occasionally cracks 90 mph.) "He has a feel for pitching," says Manuel. "As the league has figured him out, he's made adjustments."
Buehrle added two pitches, a cut fastball and a sinker, to his repertoire after the season started. He also began throwing his changeup, a pitch he used sporadically last year, much more. By spotting all his pitches well and attacking hitters with strikes, he keeps them off balance, getting outs without eye-popping strikeout totals. He had only 114 whiffs in 193? innings, but he'd given up four hits or fewer in 11 of his 28 starts, including a one-hit shutout against the Devil Rays. He also put together a streak of 24? scoreless innings in May and June. "His stuff isn't overpowering, but he can be overpowering the way he uses his pitches," says White Sox first baseman Paul Konerko. "He breaks a lot of bats and keeps hitters from getting comfortable."
Manuel is so impressed that he has already declared that Buehrle will start on Opening Day 2002. Buehrle, meanwhile, is still trying to get used to seeing his name on the pitching leader boards. "It's been kind of surprising to see BUEHRLE and not MARTINEZ at the top of the ERA list," he says.
He may have to get used to it.
Red Sox Meltdown
Duquette at the Eye Of the Storm
During the Red Sox' 6-4 loss to the Indians at Fenway Park last Thursday—their 10th defeat in 11 games—a fan held up a hand-drawn sign on which Boston general manager Dan Duquette's name was conspicuously misspelled as DAN DO-QUIT. Duquette, who signed a two-year contract extension in June, isn't likely to step down at the fans' behest, but calls for his head capped a tumultuous and disastrous three weeks for the Red Sox. On Aug. 16, the day Duquette fired skipper Jimy Williams and gave pitching coach Joe Kerrigan a two-year contract to manage Boston, the Red Sox were 65-53 and trailed the Yankees in the American League East by five games and the As by only two in the wild-card race. After losing their third straight game to the Yankees on Sunday, they'd dropped 16 of 23 under Kerrigan and tumbled out of the postseason picture, 13 games behind both New York and Oakland. "It's terribly disappointing to fall the way we did," Boston righthander David Cone said after losing 9-2 last Saturday. "We're in desperation mode right now."