It wasn’t exactly a blowout, but the Sox finally put some runs on the board.
For the first time since April 17, when the Sox knocked around the Blue Jays for a 7-0 win in Toronto, the South Siders scored more than three runs, this time touching Rays starter Jeremy Hellickson for five runs in a series-opening 5-2 win against Tampa Bay on Thursday at U.S. Cellular Field.
“I’ll take five. I like five. Five is a good number,” Sox manager Robin Ventura said. “With our pitching staff, if you get there it’s a pretty good number.”
Five runs was more than enough support Thursday, as Chris Sale turned in his best outing since his Opening Day gem against the Royals. Sale went seven innings, allowing just two runs and four hits while striking out seven. He earned the win, his second of the season, evening his record at 2-2.
“Late in the game, if you give Chris a three-run lead we kind of like our chances,” designated hitter Adam Dunn said. “It was good timing, and we were able to get him a lead early. Whenever you give your ace a lead early, you’ve got a pretty good chance of winning.”
Dunn was speaking, of course, of his sixth-inning home run that elevated a 3-2 Sox lead to a 5-2 differential and gave the team some relative breathing room. Coming into Thursday’s game, eight of the last nine games had been decided by two runs or fewer. Still, the three-run margin of victory wasn’t exactly a whole lot of padding, and 19 of the team’s 21 games this season have been decided by three runs or fewer.
Thursday’s contest figured to be a pitcher’s duel, given the matchup of Sox ace Sale and former Rookie of the Year Jeremy Hellickson, but the teams combined for four runs in the first inning. The Rays scored once on an Evan Longoria RBI single, but the Sox came right back with three of their own in the bottom of the inning. Jeff Keppinger and Paul Konerko picked up RBI hits, and Conor Gillaspie drove in the third run with a sacrifice fly.
But then the duel came, as Sale and Hellickson took over from there. Gillaspie’s sac fly started a streak of nine consecutive outs for Hellickson, who ended up punching out eight in six innings. A fourth-inning solo home run to Jose Lobaton was Sale’s only scoreboard-related damage after the first, as he danced around matching a career-high with four walks.
The Sox were embroiled in yet another one-run game until Dunn’s home run, his fourth of the season. The long ball was a good sign for the struggling slugger, who entered Thursday’s game hitting just .100. The drive was just Dunn’s second hit since April 11 -- both have been home runs -- but after a three-walk day against the Twins on Wednesday, some are viewing this as a turning point for Dunn.
“It’s just a matter of time with a guy like him,” Sale said. “It’s definitely not lack of effort or mentality. He’s got what it takes, and he’s got the track record to prove that. It’s just a matter of time, and he got it going tonight. Just build on top of that and keep it going.”
In addition to the homer, Dunn lined a couple of balls hard in his first two at-bats. Put it all together, and it’s a positive sign.
“I think you keep working at it, keep grinding. Tonight is a step forward as far as what he’s feeling comfortable, what he’s trying to do,” Ventura said. “He hit a ball the other way, a good line drive the other way and finally gets one and gets it.”
“It’s hard to sit here and tell everybody that you feel good and the results aren’t there, but I do feel good,” Dunn said. “I have felt good for the most part of the season. Obviously the results aren’t where I want them. But it’s been a pretty good couple of days, and it gives you something to build on.”
Dunn’s early-season struggles could serve as a microcosm for the Sox offense in general. But, like the slugger’s homer, a five-run night looks pretty good for this team right now. After losing four in a row, the Sox have built a winning streak, albeit a small one. Still, there is hope that a big run could lie somewhere in the near future.
“We have not hit the ball like we’re capable of all year,” Dunn said. “I can’t really think of one game when we’ve done what I think and a lot of people think that we’re capable of doing. If we continue to get the pitching, and hopefully our bats will heat up eventually, there’s no doubt in my mind we can do it.”