Morel's struggles and the No. 2 spot

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Morel's struggles and the No. 2 spot

Brent Morel went 0-4 with four strikeouts on Opening Day, in which he hit second. The following game, Morel was dropped to eighth in the Sox order with Brent Lillibridge drawing a walk in four plate appearances in the two-hole. On that Sunday against Texas, Morel was given the day off and Gordon Beckham hit second, going 1-3 with a walk.

Morel returned to the No. 2 spot the next day, remaining there until he got a reprieve Thursday against Baltimore. His lines in between were: 1-5, 0-3 (1BB), 1-3, 1-3 (1BB), 0-4, 1-3, 1-5, 0-5. As a No. 2 hitter, Morel has struck out 18 times in 40 trips to the plate. For someone whose bat-handling skills were listed as a main reason why he would hit second, that's not good. And it's much, much worse for someone who showed so much promise last September.

A concern is that Morel's struggles are related to his spot in the order -- in other words, the duties that come along with hitting second. Unfortunately, No. 2 hitters are usually asked to hit behind runners, which means if Alejandro De Aza is on base, Morel's expected to punch the ball to the right side.

Given what Morel said at SoxFest about his September surge of 2011, that doesn't sound like the best strategy.

"I was just caught up trying to put the ball in play and just kinda move guys over and do that kind of stuff," Morel said of his pre-September approach. "Toward the end, I relaxed a little bit and was more selective and patient up there. That helped me out."

If Morel's caught up in trying to put the ball in play this year, it isn't showing -- his 41 percent strikeout rate is the highest of any starter on the Sox. But Morel's swung at plenty of bad pitches and, most notably, has only pulled two balls to the outfield all year (chart via Texas Leaguers):

Morel's eight-homer September was fueled by pulling the ball, along with better plate discipline. Right now, Morel isn't pulling the ball, nor is he displaying good plate discipline.

Hitting coach Jeff Manto, though, doesn't see Morel's 2012 issues as being the product of his spot in the lineup.

"Once the game starts, you become a hitter -- every inning, the order changes," Manto said Thursday. "I don't think he's trying to do anything different because he's in the two-hole. I know that if all goes well -- De Aza gets a hit, steals second and he moves the ball, then yeah, that becomes normal. But that might happen in the fifth inning, in the sixth inning if he's hitting in the two-hole, three-hole or four-hole. He is the hitter who he is, no matter where he is in the lineup."

Essentially, Manto's saying Morel would have the same duties associated with the No. 2 spot -- moving guys along, basically -- no matter where he hits. That makes sense, although it doesn't make sense to have Morel concentrate on putting the ball in play andor hitting to the right side.

Morel has the ability to be a productive offensive player for the White Sox. That much he proved at the tail end of last year. And, fair or not, that level (or, more realistically, one somewhat close to it) of offensive production is what Morel will strive for.

"He's been trying to get to that feel of last year, so to speak, and has always been trying to get to that feel," Manto said. "We're looking at the ball. We're looking to hit the ball and let the mechanics and everything else take care of itself. We talk about it all the time, the most important thing is the ball and not the mechanics."

So don't expect Morel to have his stanceswing tweaked a la Gordon Beckham. But maybe he could pull Manto's quote of "we're looking at the ball" and go from there, not worrying about where the ball ends up.

That's what he did last September, and that's what he'll have to do to pull himself out of his struggles and give the Sox a viable No. 2 hitter.

Preview: Chris Sale starts for White Sox against Rays tonight on CSN+

Preview: Chris Sale starts for White Sox against Rays tonight on CSN+

The White Sox take on the Tampa Bay Rays on Tuesday, and you can catch all the action on CSN+. Coverage begins with White Sox Pregame Live at 6:30 p.m. Be sure to stick around after the final out to get analysis and player reaction on White Sox Postgame Live.

Tonight’s starting pitching matchup: Chris Sale (16-9, 3.19 ERA) vs. Alex Cobb (1-1, 6.16 ERA)

Click here for a game preview to make sure you’re ready for the action.

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James Shields gets first win in two months as White Sox beat Rays

James Shields gets first win in two months as White Sox beat Rays

James Shields’ time with the White Sox has not gone well. But Monday night was one of the bright spots, and it came against his former team.

Shields allowed just one run in his six innings of work against the visiting Tampa Ray Bays — with whom he spent the first seven seasons of his career — and earned his first win since July 26 as the White Sox opened this four-game set with a 7-1 victory at U.S. Cellular Field.

Shields didn’t exactly keep the Rays off the bases Monday, running into jams with multiple base runners on in four of his six innings. But he did keep them off the scoreboard, for the most part, getting some help from his defense with a couple double plays. He finished allowing just one run on seven hits with six strikeouts over his six innings.

The win was his first in two months after a brutal August — six starts with four losses and an 11.42 ERA — and a couple of rough outings in September. It was Shields’ sixth victory on the season and fourth since joining the White Sox compared to 18 losses on the season, 11 coming with the White Sox.

“I had a few chances my last few starts to get some wins, but sometimes those things happen,” Shields said. “I’m just trying to finish the season strong right now. Body feels good, arm feels good, so hopefully I can get another win on Saturday to end my season and move into next year.”

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With just one more start on his schedule in the season’s final week, Shields won’t lose a visually upsetting 20 games. Avoiding that number might not make losing 18 or 19 much easier for fans and observers to swallow, but teammates understand what Shields has gone through this season.

“I think we’ve all been through it once or maybe even twice in our career. He works his butt off, though,” third baseman Todd Frazier said. “He looks at film. He watches everything he’s doing. To come out with the strong outing today, even in the first inning, getting two runners on and getting out of that jam, it goes to show you his resilience. Whenever he got runners on, he looked relaxed and induced a lot of ground balls which we needed.”

Certainly Shields’ teammates picked him up Monday. The two double plays while he was in the game were just half the infield’s total on the night, two more coming in the seventh and eighth, when Tommy Kahnle and Nate Jones put the first two hitters they faced on in each frame. But the double plays helped end those threats and keep the Rays down.

The White Sox struck first with a run in the first inning, Melky Cabrera scoring on Justin Morneau’s sacrifice fly. After the Rays tied it up in the fourth with an RBI single, the White Sox punched back, Frazier doubling, stealing third base and scoring on Omar Narvaez’s sacrifice fly in the bottom of that inning.

And as Shields and the relief corps danced out of jams, the White Sox added to their score. Jose Abreu singled in a run in the fifth, but it was a pair of two-run homers off the bats of Morneau and Carlos Sanchez in the seventh and eighth innings that provided the real insurance.

The win was the third straight for the White Sox, something that while positive won’t provide much solace in a season where competing for a playoff spot is a distant memory.

But, like Shields finishing his season strong, White Sox players in general can create individual momentum for each of their offseasons and into next year with good finishes to 2016.

“We want to end on a positive note,” Frazier said. “Everybody wants to meet their goals. Baseball is the most individualistic team sport there is. You have to have your individual goals just like your team goals, and our team goals are out the door right now. You don’t want to play for yourself, but at the same time play for your pitcher a little bit and help him out.”