Up the middle may lead to the top

Up the middle may lead to the top

If a team's outlook can be partially judged by its strength up the middle, then a great deal of pressure figures to fall on A.J. Pierzynski's shoulders.

The hard-working White Sox catcher stands as the only returning starter from 2008 at any of these four primary positions, although Alexei Ramirez simply is moving his job responsibilities from second to shortstop. The team also features a relatively untested double-play combination of Ramirez and new second baseman Chris Getz, a duo getting plenty of playing time during the last week of Spring Training, as the Sox prepare to unveil their new up-the-middle defense against right-hander Gil Meche and the Kansas City Royals at U.S. Cellular Field in the season-opener on Tuesday.

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The success of White Sox in 2009 will rest largely on the new keystone defenders, but Getz has the ultimate confidence in this working relationship, even without the extra Cactus League innings together.

"We could not play in another game here and I think we would be fine," Getz said. "There are some little things that you need to get used to working with someone, but not a huge adjustment. Nothing I see really poses a problem.

"Some guys, in terms of feeds [to second], they feed it differently, but you can get that figured out with a conversation. So, there's nothing that necessarily worries me. I'm thinking we are good to go right now."

Ramirez actually began the 2008 campaign, his rookie season, as the team's Opening Day center fielder. But Ramirez's natural position is shortstop and when the team decided not to bring back Orlando Cabrera, it only seemed natural to slide over its most important offensive force from last May up until the playoffs.

According to Ozzie Guillen, one of the more accomplished shortstops in a long list of franchise talent at this position, Ramirez will make people forget the White Sox manager and his defensive prowess in the field.

"Alexei has natural shortstop action, that's for sure," said Getz of Ramirez. "He's such a good athlete that he could play everywhere and look comfortable and normal. There's not going to be too much of an adjustment for him."

A deep cut on Ramirez's left knee from getting spiked at home plate slowed him down last Monday but didn't even take him out of the next game. With his powerful bat, hitting .290 with 21 home runs as a rookie, Ramirez has the chance to maintain his status as an elite middle infielder -- just moving to the other side of the second-base bag.

As for the other half of this double-play combination, Getz won a Spring Training battle among three players and that number really increases to four when factoring in Gordon Beckham, the White Sox top pick in the 2008 First-Year Player Draft. Guillen and his staff selected Getz over Beckham, Brent Lillibridge and Jayson Nix because he not only played the best during Spring Training but also provides the best fit in regard to what the White Sox need on a daily basis.

Getz, 25, will bat second in Tuesday's lineup against Meche and could see some time as the leadoff man as the season progresses. The left-handed hitter as shown the ability to lay down a bunt, hit behind the runner and take the extra base, not to mention an uncanny knack for getting on base consistently, which he did in 93 of 111 games for Triple-A Charlotte last year. His style of play is exactly what the White Sox require from their Nos. 1, 2, 8 and 9 hitters.

"He's a good little player," said Guillen. "Getz is not going to make you open your mouth and go, 'Wow, what a player he is.' He's not great in anything, but he's very good in everything. He's a solid ballplayer. He has a chance to be a good big league player for a long time."

Dewayne Wise replaces Ramirez as the Opening Day center fielder and replaces Nick Swisher as the team's leadoff man, in comparing lineups from the past two seasons. Brian Anderson figures to see action against left-handed pitchers in both of those roles.

And then there's Pierzynski, beginning his fifth season as a mainstay behind the plate for the White Sox. The .284 career hitter also has reached the 1,000 innings caught mark in each of the last seven seasons, one of just two catchers to accomplish such a feat in all of baseball.

Even this up-the-middle position has changed slightly, with Corky Miller replacing Toby Hall in reserve. Pierzynski has worked hard individually and with the pitching staff this spring to improve on a caught-stealing percentage that checked in at an American League-low 10.3 percent.

Offensive expectations might be a little different for these four middle-of-the-infield starters, with Getz and Wise more about run creating and Pierzynski and Ramirez centered more on run producing. Under Guillen, the focus on airtight defense remains the same for everyone -- especially at these key spots.

"Defense is my game," Guillen said. "There's only one reason, because defense makes good pitching. You give outs away and all of a sudden, you have to get 30 outs instead of 27. If we don't play good defense, we are not gong to go anywhere."

Pitching matchup
CWS: Mark Buehrle (15-12, 3.79 in 2008)
For the past eight years, Mark Buehrle has entered the season as neither the most talented pitcher in the White Sox starting rotation nor its biggest winner. Yet, with the way Buehrle sets the tone through his tenaciousness and durability on the mound, the southpaw stands out as this team's clear-cut ace.

Buehrle makes his seventh Opening Day start, with Jose Contreras getting the nod in 2006 standing as the only interruption to this impressive streak. He carries a 122-87 record with a 3.80 career ERA into the 2009 opener, not to mention a 19-8 lifetime mark against the Royals with a 3.48 ERA. Buehrle finished 3-2 against the Royals in 2008.

By registering at least 10 wins, 30 starts and 200 innings for the eighth straight year, Buehrle became the only active pitcher in baseball to accomplish such a feat. His 68 victories at U.S. Cellular Field also stand as the stadium's top total. Buehrle enters the season needing just 17 starts to pass Joel Horlen for seventh place on the franchise's all-time list and needs just 16 strikeouts to move him past Gary Peters and into the top five on the White Sox career ledger in this category. He has never been a hard thrower, but Buehrle relies on movement and pinpoint location to regularly get the job done.

KC: Gil Meche (14-11, 3.98 in 2008)
This is Meche's third straight Opening Day start. "It's just an exciting game. It's the only game like that all year long where it's so anticipated," he said. "The players are finally get out of Spring Training and are finally getting to play in a game that counts. So I want the team to get off to a good start and I'll do the best I can to make that happen."

Meche revels in all the hoopla that surrounds the first game. "You walk out there and you see all the media, you see the amount of people camping out and tailgating before the game. And when I walk out of the dugout, to see all the fans that are already in the ballpark," he said. "Starting on the road in Detroit last year, you hear the fans getting on you -- 'Aw, you're gonna get it this year! You're gonna get it today' or whatever. And I know Chicago's going to be a little bit worse because the of the way the bullpen setup is; they're literally right behind me in that little beer garden or whatever it is. But once the game starts, it's just another game. You kind of separate yourself from the fans even though it's going to be a packed house."

Meche earned this start because he's been the rotation's strong man in his two KC seasons. He's never missed a start and he's grinded out a lot of innings.

The Royals won both of Meche's first two Opening Day starts for them. It could be a good omen that his career record against the White Sox is 7-3 including 4-2 at the Cell.

Tidbits
The seven Opening Day starts for Buehrle tie him with Billy Pierce for the franchise record. ... Josh Fields and Carlos Quentin are the other new starters, along with Getz and Wise, in comparison to Opening Day 2008. Fields replaces Joe Crede at third base, while Quentin was on the bench at the outset of 2008 before moving to his starting slot in left field. ... Wilson Betemit, Miller and Lillibridge and pitchers Clayton Richard, Bartolo Colon and D.J. Carrasco are all new to the 2009 opener, although Richard and Carrasco pitched extensively for the team last year. ... The White Sox opened in Cleveland to start 2008, losing 10-8 on Opening Day when Buehrle allowed seven runs on seven hits over 1 2/3 innings, and dropping two of three in the series.

Opening Day fanfare
It's more about who won't be there for the White Sox at their opener. Although the team has not received official notification, President Barack Obama, the nation's most prominent White Sox fan, is not expected to be able to honor the team's invitation and throw out the first pitch at U.S. Cellular Field.

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Up next
• Wednesday: White Sox (Gavin Floyd, 17-8, 3.84 in 2008) vs. Royals (Zack Greinke, 13-10, 3.47 in 2008), 7:11 p.m. CT
• Thursday: White Sox (John Danks, 12-9, 3.32 in 2008) vs. Royals (Kyle Davies, 9-7, 4.06 in 2008), 1:05 p.m. CT

Scott Merkin is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.