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MAKING IT LOOK E-Z
In winning eight of their last 10 games through Sunday, the White Sox emerged as the team to beat in the American League West. Their offense has a variety of weapons, their defense is much improved from last season, and most important, the E-Z Boys—reliever Roberto Hernandez and starters Alex Fernandez and Wilson Alvarez—are off to a terrific start.
Converted to a reliever in 1992, Hernandez, 28, suddenly developed into an overpowering closer in the second half of last season. And he's at it again this year, with sewn saves, a 1.65 ERA and 18 strikeouts in 16? innings through Sunday.
Even though Fernandez and Alvarez were major disappointments last season, Chicago pinned this year's pennant chances on the hope that one—or both—of these pitchers would blossom as a quality starter behind ace Jack McDowell (7-1). At week's end righthander Fernandez and lefthander Alvarez, both 23, were a combined 9-2, and the Sox were 22-13 and 2� games ahead in the West.
Fernandez (5-2, with Chicago getting shut out in both of his losses) had a 2.62 ERA, the rest of the league was hitting .207 against him, and he had allowed more than two runs in only two of his eight starts. That's what the White Sox were looking for in '92, when Fernandez, who's from Miami Beach, went 8-11 with a 4.27 ERA and even spent three weeks in the minors at midseason.
Maybe the White Sox were expecting too much too soon? After all, Fernandez made only eight minor league starts before his major league debut in 1990 at age 20. For the last two seasons he has had to learn to pitch on the game's highest level, with the added pressure of pitching for a contender. "This year I'm just putting together a lot of little pieces," he says.
The big difference for Fernandez has been the development of his off-speed pitches. In his first 2� major league seasons, he tried to throw the ball past hitters whenever he got into trouble. It didn't work. "If your objective is to not let the hitters hit the ball, it's going to be a long year," says Chicago pitching coach Jackie Brown. "Alex is a battler. When things got tough, he tried to get tough with his fastball. Now he's learned to get tough with his curveball, his changeup. He believes in his stuff. He believes in himself."
Alvarez is a hero in his native Venezuela, where, from 1981 to '86, he threw 12 no-hitters on various national teams before being signed by the Rangers. He was acquired by the White Sox in a multi-player deal in '89. When he returned to Venezuela after the '91 season—the year in which he threw a no-hitter against the Orioles late in the season—he warned his wife not to tell anyone his flight plans, for tear of being buried in an avalanche of fans and media at the airport. They found out anyway. He was mobbed.
Pitching had come easily to Alvarez in the minors. But when he made his major league debut, with Texas on July 24, 1989, the 19-year-old Alvarez faced only five batters and retired none. After that start he was quickly written off by some of the top people in the Ranger organization and was traded five days later. In 1991, after dominating opponents at Double A Birmingham, Alvarez was recalled by the White Sox and went 3-2 with a 3.51 ERA in 10 games, including the no-hitter.
East year was supposed to be his breakthrough season, but he pitched poorly (5-3, 5.20 ERA) while splitting time between the rotation and the bullpen. The 6'1" Alvarez also was overweight 240 pounds) and was seen by some observers as being lazy. "He has great ability," a former teammate aid in spring training this year, "but he has never worked at it."