CLOSER: DUSTIN HERMANSON, Sox
Who seems to be aging faster these days, Dusty Baker or Ozzie Guillen?
Nothing ages a manager quicker than an unreliable bullpen. Nothing makes a team and a manager feel better about itself than relievers who come in and slam the door on a nightly basis.
The differences in their respective bullpens are largely why Guillen seemingly is 41 going on 14 while Baker feels all of his 55 years.
The White Sox, relegated to the middle of the pack in most preseason predictions, enter this weekend's City Series with 11 more victories than the Cubs. Seven of those have come in one-run games. They win them; the Cubs lose them.
The Sox are 14-5 in one-run games, the most victories in the majors. The Cubs are 6-9. Take one-run games out of the equation and Guillen's White Sox would be only three victories better than Baker's Cubs.
Where would the Cubs be if they, and not the Sox, had gone out this winter and signed Dustin Hermanson?
No newcomer in town has had a bigger impact than Hermanson, whom White Sox general manager Ken Williams quietly signed to a two-year contract with a 2007 option last December. His presence has excused a faltering start by Shingo Takatsu, the Sox's incumbent closer, whose 5.56 ERA has overshadowed his going 8-for-9 in save situations. The Cubs, who really had no incumbent closer, already have put six relievers in save situations as Baker continues his long search.
Hermanson is basically perfect-for-2005. He has thrown 191/3 innings without allowing an earned run. Minnesota rookie Jesse Crain (13 innings) is the only other big-league pitcher who has done that for more than seven innings.
Hermanson is holding opponents to a .175 batting average and has a 3-to-1 strikeout-walk ratio. He's 9-for-9 in save situations, making him 26-for-29 since San Francisco manager Felipe Alou took him out of the Giants' rotation to replace Matt Herges as closer last August.
Here's the really important stat: He has played a significant role in 14 victories (nine saves, five holds). No Cubs reliever has more than four combined saves and holds. So, no, it didn't take much internal agonizing to make Hermanson the closer on the eighth annual Chicago Tribune All-City team.
A look around the diamond at the other choices:
Starter: Jon Garland, Sox
Starter: Mark Buehrle, Sox
Starter: Mark Prior, Cubs
Starter: Orlando Hernandez, Sox
Like Esteban Loaiza in 2003, Garland has emerged as an unexpected All-Star for the Sox. He has completely turned around a career in which he basically ran in place for three seasons, going 36-36 and averaging 200 innings. He has been better in every category possible this season, but the most telling stat might be his ratio of grounders to fly balls1.75 to 1, up from 1.27 to 1 last season. He has been getting ahead of hitters, which has allowed him to cut down his walks, and has forced batters to slap his hard sinker on the ground rather than waiting for something up in the strike zone. Buehrle also has positioned himself as a serious All-Star candidate, making a name for himself with his rock-and-fire pace. The highlight was his 1-hour-39-minute game against Seattle's Ryan Franklin. Hernandez is pitching well and has been an asset for his fellow pitchers, especially Jose Contreras.
Despite another spring-training scare, Prior has been a bright spot for a Cubs pitching staff that hasn't had much go right. He has given up more than two runs only once while holding opponents to a .194 batting average and striking out 10.2 per nine innings. Baker hasn't allowed him to throw more than 110 pitches in a start, however, as the Cubs continue to monitor his health. Too bad Baker hasn't always been this cautious with him.
THE ALL-CITY TEAM