3 reasons the White Sox are off to a great start

                                                                                                                                                                                                   
  • Part of the reason for the White Sox's success is Jose Abreu, who is at his best when runners are in scoring position. Here he hits a grand slam April 2 against the Angels in Anaheim, Calif.

    Part of the reason for the White Sox's success is Jose Abreu, who is at his best when runners are in scoring position. Here he hits a grand slam April 2 against the Angels in Anaheim, Calif. Associated Press

 
By Matt Baron
Daily Herald correspondent
Updated 5/15/2021 9:05 PM

Since their April 1 season opening 4-3 loss to the Los Angeles Angels, the White Sox have lost only two games by a one-run margin. Then again, they have won only three times by a run.

By contrast, just this past week, the Cubs lost three straight one-run games -- and that came hard on the heels of four consecutive victories by a run. Entering Saturday's action against Detroit, the Cubs were 18-19 overall, including 7-6 in one-run games.

 

The biggest difference between the Windy City rivals? The Sox flourish in building and maintaining, comfortable leads. To wit: scoring nine runs in four straight games earlier this week.

Result: They own the largest run differential in the Major Leagues, 64 runs -- or nearly 2 runs per game. Houston, at +46, ranked second in that category heading into Saturday.

A six-game winning streak before splitting Friday's doubleheader with Kansas City brought the Sox record to 23-14, the best winning percentage (.622) in the Major Leagues. Here are three keys that have been instrumental in this surge:

Abreu's clutch hitting

The first baseman's batting average (.240) and OPS (.793) are pedestrian, but when the bases are loaded or if there are runners on second and third -- watch out. In those moments, Jose Abreu is 5-for-8, with two grand slams and 15 runs batted in.

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Otherwise, he's barely above the Mendoza Line (26-for-121, .215), but he sure has a knack when there's more on the line. It's just business as usual for the reigning American League MVP: he entered 2021 with a career. 322 average (vs. a .294 overall mark) with runners in scoring position, including 19-for-58 (.328) with the bases loaded.

Hamilton steps up

Every team has a variety of unknowns heading into each season. This year, one of those questions came in the form of renowned speedster Billy Hamilton. Blessed with a surplus of young, uber-talented outfielders, how much room was there for the veteran to contribute?

Then came injuries to Eloy Jimenez and Luis Robert. Even so, Hamilton still has not become a regular starter. But he has been a linchpin defensively, inserted in latter innings in time to make pivotal plays in at least a few wins. On Wednesday, a rare start, he went 4-for-4 with three runs to demonstrate that he's far from done offensively.

A five-time Gold Glove finalist with Cincinnati, Hamilton bounced around and played for four teams the past two years. His stellar play, especially on defense, epitomizes the club's resilience in overcoming the sidelining of stars Jimenez and Robert.

                                                                                                                                                                                                                       
 

Kopech comes up big

Michael Kopech and third baseman Yoan Moncada were the two key prizes who came to the Sox from the Red Sox in December 2016 in exchange for All-Star pitcher Chris Sale.

While Moncada emerged as a borderline All-Star caliber player, Kopech managed only four promising starts in 2018 before needing Tommy John surgery that wiped out 2019. In the pandemic-shortened 2020 season, he opted out and there was uncertainty about not only his physical comeback, but his mental health.

So far, he has come up big -- summoned to bail out the Sox in high-pressure, midgame situations and delivering multiple innings of high-velocity relief (40 strikeouts in his 26⅓ innings). In addition to serving as a reliable bridge to closer Liam Hendriks, Kopech has performed well in three spot starts, all Sox victories. The most recent start came in the second game of Friday's doubleheader against the Kansas City Royals, a four-inning, one-run showing in the 3-1 victory.

• Matt Baron supplements his baseball brainpower with Retrosheet.org for research.

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