White Sox

Zach Duke's 'El Duque'-esque great escape earns White Sox much-needed win

Zach Duke's 'El Duque'-esque great escape earns White Sox much-needed win

BOSTON — Instead of Jason Varitek, Tony Graffanino and Johnny Damon, it was Dustin Pedroia, Christian Vasquez and Ryan LaMarre. 

Zach Duke’s miraculous escape of a bases loaded, nobody-out jam — which was reminiscent of Orlando “El Duque” Hernandez’s landmark relief appearance here in Game 3 of the 2005 American League Division Series — set up Jose Abreu’s game-winning two-run double to earn the White Sox a 3-1 win over the Boston Red Sox Monday night at Fenway Park. 

When Duke entered the game — which came after Zach Putnam walked the bases loaded to begin the ninth — the Red Sox had a 93.8 percent chance of winning, according to FanGraphs’ win expectancy. 

“It was a little bit stressful,” Duke said. “But those are the moments we live for as players. To be able to be handed the ball in that situation and get the job done, that’s what we live for.”

Dustin Pedroia was the first challenger against Duke, with the former MVP being called upon to pinch hit for left-handed third baseman Travis Shaw. After getting strike one with a fastball out over the plate, Duke pounded Pedroia inside with his low-80s slider and mid-70s curveball. He missed with one, but Pedroia pulled three breaking balls foul — which was exactly the plan. 

With Pedroia having to protect a two-strike count against that barrage of inside breaking balls, Duke went back to his fastball. He missed low and away with his first one, then blew Pedroia away with No. 2 for the first out. 

“He made some really good pitches with his breaking ball in to him where if he was going to make solid contact it was going to go foul, like he did a couple of times,” catcher Alex Avila said. “Zach has those two different types of breaking balls where it can be a little harder and slower, and when you’re seeing as many as Pedroia did, the two fastballs you could tell he was late on protecting against the breaking ball as well. Good sequence on his part.”

Next up was light-hitting catcher Christian Vasquez, with the Red Sox win expectancy still at a healthy 83.6 percent. Duke didn’t throw a single pitch in the strike zone during this at-bat, with Vasquez letting two balls go but chasing two out of the zone for foul balls. The 2-2 offering was a 77 mile per hour curveball low and away, which Vasquez softly chopped up the middle. 

Tyler Saladino — who was brought on as a fifth infielder after Putnam loaded the bases — was standing right there to field it, but the usually sure-handed infielder fired low toward home plate. Avila made an outstanding play, keeping his right foot on the base while successfully cradling the ball in his glove. If he had bobbled it or not fielded it cleanly, it would’ve been game over. 

“That was an unreal play,” Duke said. “I don’t know how he caught that ball. I had a perfect view of it. As soon as it left Sally’s hand, I was going, ‘Nooooo,’ but then he came up with it. 

“And I said from that point on I’m going to get this next guy.”

The next guy was pinch hitter Ryan LaMarre, and Duke followed through on his personal prediction (the Red Sox win expectancy dropped to 66 percent after Vasquez’s groundout). This was a dominant at-bat from Duke — LaMarre fouled off a first-pitch fastball, then swung at two of three breaking balls low and inside for an inning-ending strikeout. 

Duke let out two primal screams as he strutted off the mound. 

“You bring him in that situation and you’re hoping for the best,” manager Robin Ventura said. 

What Duke did was exactly that best-case scenario, however unlikely it was. The White Sox were 90 feet away from losing their third game in four days in walk-off fashion only a few hours after general manager Rick Hahn fielded questions about Ventura’s job status. For a team that’s been stuck in a bad way for about a month and a half, Duke’s spectacular escape was a much-needed reversal of fortune. 

Whether the ninth inning — and Jose Abreu’s game-winning, two-run double in the 10th — result in the White Sox turning things around for good after losing 26 of their previous 36 games heading into Boston remains to be seen. But thanks to Zach “Duque” (he had a laugh at all those plays on his and Hernandez’s name that were all over social media), the White Sox were able to celebrate instead of wallow on Monday night.

“For us, it’s hard to win one game, sometimes,” Ventura said. “It took a game a game as odd as this one to do it and it shows something about the toughness of the guys we have in here.”

Strikeout machine Alec Hansen wants to be the best ... OK, one of the best

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AP

Strikeout machine Alec Hansen wants to be the best ... OK, one of the best

GLENDALE, Ariz. — On a day when Jose Abreu and Yoan Moncada took live batting practice for the first time this spring, off in the distance was a lanky White Sox prospect standing in the outfield grass.

But Alec Hansen was doing more than shagging flies. He was watching both hitters very closely.

“I was looking to see how much pop they had,” Hansen said of Abreu and Moncada. “I kind of look at that to see the difference in power between minor league ball and the major leagues. It’s nice to see it’s not a huge difference. That makes me feel a bit more comfortable.”

At 6-foot-8 — actually 6-foot-8-and-a-half, according to his spring training physical — Hansen is a big man with big plans for his baseball career. He might be quiet on the outside, but he has booming expectations for himself on the inside.

“I want to be the best,” Hansen said in an interview with NBC Sports Chicago.

The best? The very best?

That’s what Hansen aspires to become, though later in our conversation, he did dial back a notch, settling for becoming “one of the best.”

Either is fine with manager Ricky Renteria, who is overseeing these uber-confident White Sox prospects and accepts their lofty expectations.

“I think their mindset is where it’s supposed to be,” Renteria said. “None of these kids are concerned or consumed with the possibility of failure. Much more they’re consuming themselves with the understanding that they might hit some stumbling blocks, but they’re going to have a way to avoid overcoming them and push forward and be the best that they can be.”

In his first full season in the White Sox organization, Hansen led the minor leagues with 191 strikeouts. He’s proud of that accomplishment but admitted something: He’s not that impressed because he didn’t do it where it really matters — in the major leagues.

When you watch Hansen pitch, it’s easy to see that the talent is there. His coaches and teammates rave about his ability. With his enormous size and power arm, he is loaded with strengths.  

Though there is one weakness that Hansen acknowledges he needs to work on.

“Sometimes I have a tendency to think too much and worry. I think worrying is the worst thing that I do just because I want to be perfect,” Hansen said. “I think everyone wants to be perfect, some more than others, and I worry about things getting in the way of achieving perfection.”

To Hansen, that doesn’t mean throwing a perfect game. He actually takes it one step further.

He wants to strikeout every single hitter he faces.

“I love striking people out,” Hansen said. “Not having to rely on anyone else and just getting the job done myself and knowing that the hitter can’t get a hit off me. That’s a great feeling. That they can’t put it in play. Like a line drive out. That’s terrible.”

At some point, Hansen will have to lower these impossible expectations for himself. This is an imperfect game. There’s no place for nine-inning, 27-strikeout performances. Players end up in the Hall of Fame because they learn how to succeed with failure.

In the meantime, Hansen is here in big league camp watching and learning anything and everything.

“I’m a good observer. I listen. I don’t really talk too much. I’m a pretty quiet guy. I like to sit back and observe and see how these guys go about their business. Just trying to be at their level, hopefully one day surpass them.”

Surpass?

“It’s kind of hard to surpass some of these guys. I mean, they’re at the tip-top, like the pinnacle of the sport,” Hansen said. “I guess you could say, to get on that level and then be one of the best in the league.”

He might be on his way.

White Sox free up spot on 40-man roster by outrighting Dylan Covey

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USA TODAY

White Sox free up spot on 40-man roster by outrighting Dylan Covey

The White Sox freed up a spot on their 40-man roster Sunday, outrighting pitcher Dylan Covey to Triple-A Charlotte.

Covey pitched in 18 games last season, making 12 starts for the South Siders. Things did not go well, with Covey turning in an 0-7 record and a 7.71 ERA in 70 innings.

While there was an outside chance that Covey could have provided at least some starting-pitching depth heading into the 2018 season, the team's recent additions of Miguel Gonzalez and Hector Santiago — not to mention Covey's results from last season — wiped out that idea.

At the moment, the White Sox starting rotation figures to look like this by Opening Day: James Shields, Lucas Giolito, Reynaldo Lopez, Gonzalez and Carson Fulmer, with Santiago seeming like a good option to provide depth as the long man in the bullpen.