There were two outs in the ninth inning with the White Sox down two runs and nothing going on. Tyler Flowers stepped to the plate and the game did not end.
Flowers worked a walk from Royals closer Greg Holland as he smartly took a 3-1 pitch that easily could have been called a strike that would have put him on the verge of a game-ending strikeout. But umpire Hunter Wendelstedt gave the call to the 245-pound Flowers, and the tying run came to the plate.
But even though Gordon Beckham followed with his fourth hit of the day, there would be no comeback. Holland retired leadoff man Alejandro De Aza on a grounder to wrap up a 3-1 victory that kept the Sox from sweeping the opening series of the season. It was a pretty routine Thursday afternoon before a crowd of only 15,036.
The lingering thought is this: Do the the White Sox have a new weapon to use in building future playoff teams?
Flowers, under the gun as A.J. Pierzynski’s replacement at catcher, outplayed the Royals’ highly regarded Salvy Perez over three games. That’s no little feat. But the point here is bigger than one April series.
It’s this: The White Sox have been a homer-or-bust team since the Frank Thomas era ended, and that’s not the way you construct a consistent contender. Winning might start with pitching, but it sure is helped if regulars in your lineup get on base 35 to 40 percent of the time, and there’s a chance that Flowers might grow into being one of those guys.
“He had good at-bats,” White Sox manager Robin Ventura said of Flowers, who was on base four times. “It’s [judged] over the course of the year. You can get caught up trying to do something when you’re replacing somebody. He composed himself, had good at-bats, kept it simple, took the ball up the middle, not over-swinging.”
Pierzynski was a better-than-average catcher throughout his eight seasons in Chicago; he was not a high on-base guy because he rarely walked. As a team, the Sox have not ranked higher than seventh in the American League in on-base percentage since 2006, when they were sixth.
That’s a huge indicator of success.
In the last six seasons, when the the White Sox ranked on average ninth in OBP, the best on-base teams in the AL were the Yankees, Red Sox, Tigers, Twins (surprise!), Rays and Rangers. Those six teams accounted for 18 of 25 possible playoff spots, leaving only seven for the other eight teams.
General manager Rick Hahn was thinking about Jeff Keppinger’s .367 on-base percentage for the Rays last year when he signed him to a 3-year contract. Though Flowers hit .213 with a .296 OBP as Pierzynski’s backup last year, Hahn has paid close attention throughout most of Flowers’ minor league career, when he was an on-base machine (.275 batting average, .391 OBP).
Is that guy making a comeback?
Ventura expected Flowers to improve with regular at-bats, and it looks like that is happening. Flowers hoped it would be easier to handle big-league pitching when he was in the lineup five or six times a week.
“When you’re not playing consistently, it can be tough to stick with your approach, your game plan,” Flowers said. “That’s what I’m doing now. It’s a lot different knowing that I’m going to get four at-bats today and four at-bats the next day.”
The White Sox managed only seven runs in the Royals’ series, and six of those scored on their five home runs (including two from Flowers). De Aza and Keppinger, the supposed igniters, weren’t on base often. Beckham’s four-hit day game was a good sign, even if only his ninth-inning single was a rope.
Carlos Sanchez, who last year hit .323 with a .378 on-base percentage, will be a phone call away in Triple-A Charlotte if Ventura decides at some point he has to audition table-setters. He would love it if Beckham and Alexei Ramirez could become tougher outs, keeping Sanchez as a 2014 consideration.