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BASEBALL / ROSS NEWHAN : White Sox Fill the Holes Without Emptying Vault

May 16, 1993|ROSS NEWHAN

The Chicago White Sox, their victory totals having dropped from 94 to 87 to 86, got heat from the media and fans last winter for refusing to sign a free-agent pitcher to complement Jack McDowell.

"We took a beating for not spending $20 or $30 million on a pitcher behind McDowell, but we really liked the two kids and felt that with another year of maturity and confidence, they could do the job," General Manager Ron Schueler said. "We knew if they didn't, we'd be in trouble."

So far so good.

McDowell has a 7-1 record and the two kids, left-hander Wilson Alvarez and right-hander Alex Fernandez, each 23, have given depth to a rotation that includes Kirk McCaskill and a bargain free agent, Dave Stieb.

Alvarez is 4-0 with a 2.70 earned-run average, and Fernandez is 4-2 with a 1.88 ERA.

A 12-3 run lifted the White Sox into first place in the American League West with a 20-12 record heading into a weekend series against the Texas Rangers.

"We have the capability to stay where we are, but Fernandez and Alvarez have to continue to solidify the pitching," Manager Gene Lamont said. "Both have had the stuff, but you never know about confidence and maturity."

Alvarez pitched a no-hitter in 1991 but was 5-3 with a 5.20 ERA as a part-time starter and reliever last year.

"He was a one-pitch pitcher," Lamont said, alluding to Alvarez's fastball. "Now he has command of a breaking ball and changeup."

Fernandez, a No. 1 draft pick from Miami in 1990, was coming off disappointing seasons of 9-13 and 8-11. He also had reacted angrily to a minor league demotion last year, but Lamont suspects it put him back on course mentally and toughened him.

"Instead of the big inning that hurt him before, he's working out of jams by giving up only one or two runs," Lamont said.

But Fernandez and Alvarez are only part of the story for the White Sox, who have overcome the absence of Tim Raines because of a thumb injury and the early struggle of George Bell.

Lamont announced in late spring that Craig Grbeck would replace Steve Sax at second base, putting a big salary on the bench but improving the defense.

Grbeck, however, was sidelined because of a hand injury, and Lamont turned to Joey Cora, a .246 hitter now at .295, a leadoff spark batting ahead of the equally catalytic Lance Johnson, the league's No. 3 hitter as of Friday.

Lamont said he isn't sure how he will arrange the lineup when Raines returns in about 10 days, since the top of the order has been an unexpected bonus.

"If the pitching was going to improve, we had to improve the defense," Lamont said. "We had to get to balls and make more double plays. That's why I made the move with Sax. I'm not saying he was the reason we didn't win last year, but the defense was a factor, and Joey has been outstanding."

The return of shortstop Ozzie Guillen from the knee injury that put him out almost all of last year and the comeback of bionic Bo Jackson have contributed to the improved defense, depth and clubhouse spirit. No one is more popular among their peers than Guillen and Jackson.

Ellis Burks, another bargain free agent, has been able to play despite a bulging disk that restricted his availability with the Boston Red Sox and is again an offensive threat. He had a .321 average, four home runs and 16 runs batted in through Friday, batting behind Frank Thomas and Robin Ventura in the middle of a lineup that hit .310 and hit 18 home runs in the 12-3 stretch. Burks also has shut down the revolving door that sent Mike Huff, Shawn Abner, Dan Pasqua and Warren Newson into right field last year.

Roberto Hernandez, who had a 7-3 record and 12 saves after Bobby Thigpen went bad in 1992, is seven for seven in save opportunities this season, showing the form that prompted the Angels to make him a No. 1 draft selection in 1986, another lifetime ago.

"Roberto is as big a story as Bo is," Schueler said. "He was told he would never pitch again. He was told he might lose his arm."

That was in 1991 when a circulatory problem forced Hernandez to undergo delicate surgery in which veins were taken from his thigh area and transplanted to his right forearm, restoring the feeling in his hand.

"Roberto is throwing in the 90s again," Schueler said. "He's been dominating. It's remarkable."

The White Sox must survive the heat of summer, but for now, at least, the heat they were experiencing last winter has subsided.

THE BIG HIT

No sooner had Bud Selig, owner of the Milwaukee Brewers and chairman of baseball's executive council, described the proposed TV partnership with NBC and ABC as the wave of the future than his general manager, Sal Bando, said it might represent a last straw for the Brewers.

"The ($8-million) revenue decrease could force the team to move," Bando said. "It really puts us in a precarious position. We can't afford to take hits like this."

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