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The season of the Chicago White Sox, which began with such promise after the acquisition of George Bell from the Cubs, came grinding to a halt last week. It was almost as if they'd proved to themselves after the All-Star break that they were a good team, but then reality set in; they admitted they had dug themselves too deep a hole with their slow start and they gave up.

The Sox went 28-13 in the stretch of games that ended a week ago Wednesday. They got themselves a season-high 12 games above .500 and closed to within two and a half games of the second-place Minnesota Twins and six and a half games of the first-place Oakland Athletics. Then they lost the final game of a four-game series with the Detroit Tigers at Bill Veeck Stadium and went on to be swept by the lowly Cleveland Indians in a three-game series last weekend, falling to ten and a half games back by last Monday morning. The Sox still have games left with both the Twins and the A's, and if they could have gotten within five games of first by this weekend they would have had something resembling a chance. The skid did away with their remote pennant hopes, but it was the way they lost that was most discouraging. They just went belly-up, apparently content to wait for next year.

The collapse even managed to mar an outing by Jack McDowell last Sunday. As has been the case on the north side this year, the team's season has been redeemed almost single-handedly by the ace of the pitching staff. Yet where Greg Maddux got more help from his number-two starter Mike Morgan and less help from the team as a whole--at last count he had lost seven games in which the Cubs were shut out this season--McDowell got more support from his hitters and almost no support from his fellow pitchers. He reached the 20-win plateau for the first time in his career last week, but only Greg Hibbard had joined him in double figures, and he had but 10 victories.

McDowell, like Maddux, has a steely demeanor on the mound. Both seem to consider an opposing run a personal affront. Maddux is from Las Vegas and has a gambler's calm under pressure (Wrigley Field organist Gary Pressy is fond of playing Kenny Rogers's "You've Got to Know When to Hold 'Em" when he comes to the plate). McDowell, in recent seasons, has adopted the mustache and goatee of John Carradine in Stagecoach, a movie in which Carradine played a gambler, and McDowell, like Maddux, has a determination that seems to increase when the chips are down. Otherwise, however, they offer contrasting styles. Maddux is a natural athlete with a crisp, efficient pitching motion and a certain moxie at the plate. McDowell has a gangly, ungraceful motion and--especially with the American League's designated-hitter rule--probably doesn't know how to properly grip a bat. Yet, like Maddux, he offers his own best reason to be a Chicago baseball fan whenever he takes the mound.

The Sox have seemed to be almost too self-aware during this season; they've seemed conscious that McDowell is their best starter by far, and have concentrated on winning his games, leaving the secondary pitchers to struggle against more lackadaisical performances. Yet, with the season down the drain, and with McDowell already having achieved his 20th victory, even he fell victim to the sudden south-side apathy last Sunday.

McDowell, as is usual for him, struggled early. He surrendered a run in the first, but even that could have been prevented with a little luck and some crisper play in the field. He allowed a leadoff single to Kenny Lofton, Cleveland's rookie of the year candidate, who stole second and went to third on a groundout. The Tribe's Carlos Baerga then managed to dribble a terrific McDowell pitch--a biting curve, down and in--down the third-base line. Robin Ventura bare-handed the ball, but his throw to the plate was high and wide, and Lofton evaded Carlton Fisk's tag. That was it, however. McDowell settled in.

His beard, at this point, is probably longer than the hair on his head; his formerly shaggy hairstyle has been shorn this season. He stands on the mound with an unusual posture, cradling the mitt to his chest the way a schoolgirl holds her books during a hallway conversation. He brings his hands together, lifts them briskly over his head, and then begins the most unusual part of his delivery--the kick. He lifts his left leg high and bent in, then kicks it out. In the past, this delivery has been compared to those goofy drawings on the covers of trashy teenage sports novel Fireball Frosh and the like--but now I see it almost as a business executive crossing the street, taking a large and awkward hop over a wide puddle in the gutter. Where most pitchers are balanced throughout the delivery, McDowell hesitates with his weight back before lunging forward. Perhaps this is what gives the sharp break to his curve and allows him to reach back for extra heat on the fastball when he needs it in a jam. (His earned-run average of 3.16 sparkles, but his ratio of base runners an inning, about 1.25, is bound to dismay American League Rotisserie Leaguers, who want something more in a pitching ace.) Still, his best pitch may be the split-fingered fastball; certainly his development of baseball's latest fad pitch was the difference between promising phenom and 20-game winner. McDowell, unlike a lot of pitchers who simply throw it hard and down, can alter the pitch's speed and location, so that it can resemble a curve, a straight change-up, or, of course, the spitball it is supposed to mimic. In any case, working in and out, starting hitters with hard stuff one time through the order and soft stuff the next, he is a pleasure to watch, an endless education--as all the good pitchers are.

Yet the Sox managed to squander his outing of last Sunday. At one point he retired 11 straight batters, but the Sox were busy sending 15 straight men to the plate to make outs. Cleveland's promising but vulnerable pitcher Dennis Cook just kept knocking them down. (The Sox have had a peculiar weakness this season against unknown pitchers, again a symptom of a team that perhaps knows too much.) They tied the score with a bit of two-out thunder in the third inning, on a double by Frank Thomas and a single by George Bell. All was quiet then until Bell led off the ninth with another single. Joey Cora ran for him--to borrow a line from Jack Brickhouse, any old kind of a run would've done it--and Ventura followed with a beautiful bunt in front of the plate. Cleveland catcher Jesse Levis waited in vain for it to roll foul, then picked it up at the last second and heaved it to Paul Sorrento at first base, who let it bounce off his glove, Cora taking third. Cook then walked Fisk to load the bases, and got Lance Johnson to pop to right on a high fastball with a one-ball count. Eric Plunk came on from the bull pen and got pinch hitter Tim Raines to ground to Baerga at second, who threw home to force Cora. Then pinch hitter Dan Pasqua also grounded to second, and the game entered extra innings. McDowell had gone his nine and was sent to the showers, and Bobby Thigpen lost it, 2-1, in the 13th.

McDowell at least inspired the Sox to a semirespectable performance. The night before was much worse. Kirk McCaskill has pitched almost as well as McDowell since the All-Star break, but while McDowell was winning five starts in a row, McCaskill was losing four out of six, with only one victory to show for it. Last Saturday's game was typical. He looked sharp and carried a 3-0 lead into the fourth, when he seemed to lose his rhythm. After getting two quick outs he allowed a single and then walked two men. Still, not to worry: the number-nine hitter, Junior Ortiz, was up. Ortiz grounded weakly to short. The Sox, having lost a pair of starting shortstops--Ozzie Guillen and Craig Grebeck--already this year, dealt for Dale Sveum earlier this summer. He can startle a fan with his smoothness around the infield--making sidearm throws to first from deep in the hole behind third, for instance--but on this play his glove passed smoothly over the ball. Two runs came home, and another when the next batter singled. Pasqua aped Sveum's play in the eighth inning, only in the outfield on a single with men on first and second, allowing the lead run to score and the runner on first to get to third. This runner then scored on a sacrifice fly, and that was the final: 5-3.

What were the Sox doing in the meantime? Well, Cora led off the fifth with a single, stole second, and, one out later, ran through third-base coach Terry Bevington's stop sign on a single; he was thrown out at home, extinguishing the rally. In the sixth they got Johnson to second with one out, but both Ron Karkovice and Sveum (who was roundly booed) struck out. In the eighth they had the bases loaded with only one out, but Warren Newson, pinch-hitting for Karkovice, chopped one directly to third base; Brook Jacoby grabbed it, stepped on the bag, and fired across the infield for the inning-ending double play. In the ninth they didn't even get a man on.

Manager Gene Lamont was typically laconic about it all afterward. When a writer asked if he had sensed a letdown in the team's spirits in the previous few days--and for a beat writer to ask such a question on a Saturday night, with his lead upstairs in the Tandy computer and no doubt ready to be filed, the letdown had to be obvious--Lamont said no, that Sveum had simply muffed the ball and that Cora's baserunning mistake, for instance, had been the fault of too much intensity, not too little.

We left and walked to our car under the booming and the bright lights of the Saturday-night fireworks display. There was something perfunctory about it, no pacing; they seemed to be lighting off the skyrockets as quickly as they could, one after another, with a slight increase in activity and a concentration of superboomers to signal the end. There was a full moon, and as it rose in the sky it seemed to diminish in size, so that it too seemed about to burst. Gene Lamont would no doubt explain that it's common for objects low on the horizon to appear larger than they do higher up, but that doesn't change the way it makes one feel.

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