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White Sox surprise, but September still stings

CHICAGO -- Let's play the "what if" game?

What if you were a group of White Sox fans standing around the Camelback Ranch complex in Arizona back in March, and someone approached to make the prediction that the White Sox would be one game out of the American League Central lead on Sept. 28? The overall reaction would have ranged from shock to disbelief to laughter, and possibly early preparations to have a statue commissioned of new manager Robin Ventura.

So, if having the White Sox in contention that late in the season would have been such an uplifting idea during Spring Training, then why did it bring about so much consternation and collective teeth gnashing over the final few weeks of the regular season? The answer lies in team perception.

Back in March, the White Sox were thought of as a second-tier team. If everything fell almost perfectly into place, they might be able to break even, or so the story goes. Those expectations quickly were raised by a team that held the division's top spot for 117 days.

When you grab and control a lead for that long -- not to mention carrying a three-game advantage with just 15 games to play -- and come up short, that sudden burst of euphoria is replaced by anger. It's a feeling also dealt with at some level by White Sox players.

"We lost way too many ballgames in the stretch run," said reliever Matt Thornton, who watched his team's three-game lead turn into a three-game deficit during a 2-10 late September fade. "It was a different thing every night we lost.

"One game was starting pitching. The next was offense. The next was bullpen. We didn't play our best at the right time of the season."

The team's expressed goal entering this season was two-fold: Develop young talent while also contending. Barring a complete rebuild, which doesn't seem to be in the White Sox vocabulary, the organization's yearly target idles at the very least at capturing the AL Central.

Where the talent development is concerned, it was mission accomplished in the formative stages. Ten rookie pitchers took the mound for the White Sox, led by Jose Quintana in the rotation, closer Addison Reed and Nate Jones out of the bullpen and southpaw Hector Santiago and his screwball moving somewhere in between.

Chris Sale, who finished eight innings short of 200 and won 17 games during his first-year as a starter, established himself as a rotation force to be reckoned with for years to come if he stays healthy. Dayan Viciedo proved to be a viable power threat in the outfield. So, why is there such a less-than-pleasurable aftertaste lingering from a strong White Sox performance?

It's ultimately all about the wins. And when you are retooling instead of starting the whole thing again from scratch, developing talent can only take you so far.

"Having the learning experience, you have the positives that come with how many young guys we had," Thornton said. "Viciedo in his first full season, Addison, Hector, Nate Jones. The September callups getting the experience and being part of a pennant chase.

"Gordon [Beckham], getting his first full season of doing that, just the experience as a whole is the positive I take from that. But you always have one goal in mind for me, and that's to make it to the playoffs and then make a run in the playoffs."

Without that run, the White Sox are left to ask "What if a very good season could have been even a little bit better?"

"Any time you play as late in the season in as many meaningful games as we've played, everybody becomes better players. You draw from the experience," White Sox starting pitcher Jake Peavy said. "Some of the young guys might not have as much disappointment, because I don't think they quite understand how hard it is to get in this position.

"You got guys like Adam Dunn and Alex Rios, these guys have never had the chance to play. They'll tell you how hard it is to be on a team that makes the playoffs. We feel like we let one slip away."

Record: 85-77, second in AL Central

Defining moment: The White Sox held a 3-0 lead through four innings against the Royals and newly-minted South Side destroyer Jeremy Guthrie at Kaufmann Stadium during a game on Sept. 20. But beating Kansas City was never an easy task in 2012, with the Royals rallying to tie the score in the sixth as the visitors missed one scoring opportunity after another. Left-handed-hitting Eric Hosmer eventually delivered the two-out, walk-off hit against the southpaw Thornton, increasing a White Sox losing streak to two that would become five and adding on to a season-changing 2-10 collapse. They went from three games up on Detroit to three games back during this fall.

What went right: Sale was even better than people imagined in making the move from the bullpen to the rotation. Aside from a bout of misunderstood elbow soreness that sent him from starter to closer in early May, Sale pretty much was an AL Cy Young Award candidate from the start. ... Don't call it a comeback: just call it Dunn, Rios and Peavy getting back to their previous levels of success. The White Sox would have been a middle-of-the-pack team without their Comeback Player of the Year-caliber success. ... Nobody played better defense than the White Sox in the AL. Beckham at second and Alexei Ramirez at shortstop put themselves into strong Gold Glove consideration, and it was this airtight defense that was one of the factors separating them from the Tigers for much of the season. ... General manager Ken Williams made key acquisitions such as Kevin Youkilis, Brett Myers and Dewayne Wise to help boost the White Sox cause in areas of weakness due to injury or ineffectiveness. ... It was a year of personal milestones, during which Philip Humber threw a perfect game in Seattle, and Paul Konerko and Dunn both reached 400 career homers. ... A.J. Pierzynski and Konerko, the two final holdovers from the 2005 World Series championship team, provided their usual quality play on the field and quality leadership in the clubhouse, with Pierzynski setting a career high in homers and matching a career high in RBIs. ... Ventura's easy-going, one-day-at-a-time managerial style resonated with his 2012 charges.

What went wrong: From May 17 to Sept. 18, the White Sox were one of the AL's best teams. From Sept. 19 until elimination on Oct. 1, the White Sox were 3-10. That failure to finish, whether it be fatigue or just a bad time for a losing skid, cost them the division. ... John Danks made the Opening Day start for the White Sox and eight starts after, but the left-hander never seemed to be healthy. He had successful shoulder surgery on Aug. 6 that cost him the rest of the year. ... Brent Morel was tabbed as the White Sox Opening Day third baseman, but even during Cactus League action, appeared to be having back problems. That pain limited him to 113 at-bats and a .177 average, not to mention an uncertain future with the White Sox. ... One of the best hitting teams with runners in scoring position all season went into a .181 dive over a 24-game stretch, contributing to the group's rough September finish. ... The White Sox finished with identical 6-12 records against the Tigers and Royals, including a stretch of nine losses in 10 games to the eventual AL Central champions. ... Ramirez's offensive numbers were comparable to years past, but the shortstop still called this season the worst of his five big league years. He was always a tick off at the plate. ... Acquiring Francisco Liriano was supposed to put the White Sox over the top in terms of adding a talented arm to an already quality rotation. Liriano couldn't find the plate and was dropped from the rotation.

Biggest surprise: Nate Jones came into Spring Training as a relative unknown in the world of prospects, but made his presence felt quickly by unleashing his 99-mph fastball against Cactus League opponents. The White Sox gave the rookie a chance to break camp with the team, choosing the right-hander over more established veterans, and he didn't disappoint. Jones was one of the best weapons out of Ventura's solid bullpen. Quintana wasn't really in the starting mix back in February, but drew some buzz with his spring performance. Quintana became a valuable replacement for Danks, until he tired under a single-season, career-high innings workload.

Chicago White Sox, Gordon Beckham, John Danks, Adam Dunn, Paul Konerko, Jake Peavy, A.J. Pierzynski, Addison Reed, Chris Sale, Dayan Viciedo