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Solid April a welcome change for White Sox

Solid April a welcome change for White Sox

Solid April a welcome change for White Sox
CHICAGO -- Since Matt Thornton arrived with the White Sox via a Spring Training trade in 2006, he can't remember many memorable April team showings.

"This has been better than we have been since I've been here," said Thornton following Sunday's 4-1 victory over the Red Sox. "Maybe in '06 we started out better."

Thornton brings first-rate stuff to the mound, but his recall isn't exactly perfect. The White Sox 11-11 finish during Robin Ventura's first month as manager marks the fifth time since 2006 that they have ended April at .500 or above. Remembering this first-month success might be tough considering the White Sox were a combined 19-32 over the past two Aprils and found themselves nine games out of first when May began last season.

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A decent early start doesn't exactly guarantee a playoff-caliber team. In 2007, the White Sox were 12-11 and 2 1/2 games out of first in the American League Central approaching May and finished at 60-79 over their next 139 games.

Without lofty outside expectations attached to this team, though, the break-even beginning presents some legitimate questions as to whether this team could be a long-term contender. Here is an attempt to provide some answers.

Who has been the White Sox most pleasant April surprise?
Jake Peavy used the phrase "as healthy as he's going to be" on a few occasions during Spring Training, describing his physical status almost two years removed from surgery to reattach his right lat muscle. He also said that the White Sox would find out quickly what he had, as he was going right after it from the start.

What the White Sox have through five starts is the ace they envisioned when making the 2009 trade with San Diego. Peavy turned in back-to-back complete-game efforts, during which he allowed one earned run, whereas other aces such as CC Sabathia or James Shields don't have one between them. Peavy also has 33 strikeouts and five walks over 37 2/3 innings, with his 0.69 WHIP trailing only the Giants' Matt Cain in the Majors. His .162 opponents average against ranks third overall in the big leagues.

"He can get out of bed on Christmas morning and throw strikes," said White Sox pitching coach Don Cooper of Peavy. "He's pitching very well. We just got a find a way to keep him healthy all year long for us."

Is Adam Dunn officially on the comeback trail?
Dunn has looked like a different player since the start of Spring Training, simply through his approach at the plate and the way he's seeing the ball. In reality, Dunn's subpar 2011 showing represented the difference, with his five homers, 16 RBIs and .881 OPS through April more commensurate with his nine years of consistency before joining the White Sox.

"I feel good, getting myself in good hitter's counts," Dunn said. "I just haven't been able to make them pay when I get in those good hitter's counts. It's a work in progress."

Predict the future for Gordon Beckham and Brent Morel
Ventura has stood behind these young players since their April struggles began. And even with Beckham entering May at .153 and Morel sitting at .178, don't look for them to go anywhere. They have provided excellent defense behind a pitching staff that consistently makes the opposition put the ball in play, so waiting for this duo to break loose offensively remains the team's best everyday option.

As Ventura mentioned before Sunday's game, eventually results do matter. Brent Lillibridge and Eduardo Escobar could provide short but somewhat extended respites if Beckham's and Morel's production doesn't pick up.

Should Hector Santiago stay as closer?
Closers blow saves, as even Hall of Fame-bound Mariano Rivera can attest. But with four homers allowed, including a Yoenis Cespedes blast in Wednesday's 14th-inning Oakland setback, Santiago trails only John Danks for the team lead, and he has pitched 24 fewer innings. Addison Reed is the closer of the future on this team and has done nothing to tarnish that image with 10 straight scoreless appearances, while Santiago will be ticketed for the rotation someday soon. Santiago will stay as closer for now, but with Thornton, Reed and a healthy Jesse Crain, the White Sox have options.

Buyers or Sellers: Is April too soon to make a guess?
Yes. General manager Ken Williams has supported Ventura's oft-spoken theory that the game at hand on a particular day deserves the only focus.

Will the heavily favored Tigers be this average all season?
Most likely, no. Remember, Detroit stood at 12-15 at the end of April last season but ran off an AL-best 83-52 record from that point forward. Nonetheless, Doug Fister's injury and an average defense points to the few flaws on what is widely considered a World Series contender.

Can the White Sox stay in contention past April?
Members of the team certainly believe in themselves.

"We are playing better than anybody expected us to, and I like where we are at," said White Sox catcher A.J. Pierzynski, whose .309 average and 17 RBIs have been key in the White Sox early success. "We believe that we can be OK and hang in this thing for a long time, as long as guys continue to get better and stay healthy and do their job and not worry about everything else that is going on."

The White Sox have two four-game winning streaks and a four-game and five-game losing streak, not to mention 85 runs scored and 82 allowed -- all of which seems to scream ".500 team." They have the top-flight pitching to put together a longer run, currently sitting one game out of first behind the Indians. Twenty-one games within the division during May should tell a great deal about this group.

"It's a matter of getting those losing streaks minimized down to a game or two, or three maybe," Thornton said. "We've played solid baseball and I think our young guys have learned a lot on the fly. I'm looking forward to the next month."

Name an April MVP for the White Sox
Paul Konerko's continued excellence on and off the field certainly deserves consideration. But this team has gone as far as its pitching as a whole, a trend that will continue over the next five months.

Scott Merkin is a reporter for MLB.com. Read his blog, Merk's Works, and follow him on Twitter @scottmerkin This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.

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