Ailing White Sox face critical road trip

Midnight is fast approaching for last year’s Cinderella team.

While it’s only mid-May, the Chicago White Sox, who stunned baseball with an American League-best record of 95-67 in 2000, began a near do-or-die, two-week, four-city, 12-game road trip Tuesday in Seattle with their season basically on the line. Despite winning three straight series, the White Sox still find themselves buried in the division with a 14-22 record, trailing division-leading Minnesota by 11 1/2 games and second-place Cleveland by 11 following a 4-3 loss to Seattle.

If the White Sox don’t cut the gap — or worse, if they drop 15 games behind by the end of May — they may call it a season and start unloading players, beginning with pitcher David Wells, who figures to be one of the most coveted pitchers before the July 31 trade deadline.

Remember, this is the team that on July 31, 1997, sent veteran pitchers Wilson Alvarez, Roberto Hernandez and Danny Darwin to San Francisco for six minor-league prospects, including four pitchers — despite being only 3 1/2 games out of first place at the time. The White Sox were blasted for waving the white flag of surrender with two months to play.

Now, the White Sox would love to narrow the gap to 3 1/2 games by July 31.

This isn’t the way this year was supposed to work out for the White Sox, especially after winning the Central title last year and having owner Jerry Reinsdorf double the payroll to $62.3 million?

“This is a huge test for us and we have to do everything we can to pass it,” White Sox manager Jerry Manuel said of the trip through Seattle, Oakland, Toronto and Detroit. “I think we have the men who are mature enough to handle this.”

The White Sox have been in crisis mode since the offseason accusations that general manager Kenny Williams had concealed the damage to Mike Sirotka’s shoulder when he traded Sirotka to Toronto as part of the deal that brought Wells to the Windy City.

That was followed by slugger Frank Thomas’ holdout during spring training.

Then came slower-than-expected recoveries by injured pitchers James Baldwin and Jim Parque and the slow start at the plate by last year’s high-powered offense, including Thomas.

Then Wells went on his ESPN radio show and implied that Thomas should have been playing hurt.

Thomas’ father died less than 24 hours later.

If all of that weren’t enough, in the past week, the White Sox lost three players to season-ending injuries — pitchers Antonio Osuna and Parque, and Thomas, with a triceps tear. This on top of already having lost starter Cal Eldred to elbow trouble.

Parque, by the way, became the eighth White Sox pitcher to have had elbow or shoulder surgery since September. The rash of pitching injuries has the team operating with an 11-man staff that has six pitchers with less than a year of major league service.

All is not lost yet, however, for the White Sox appear to be adapting quite nicely — so far — to life without the Big Hurt. They won six of their last eight games before heading West, and the team that was hitting .249 and averaging 4.1 runs per game on May 6 has hit .270 and averaged 6.1 runs over that eight-game stretch.

“When you lose your big man you’ve really got to come together a lot more,” pitcher Wells told radio listeners last week. “You’re missing out on 100-something RBI per year. These guys just have got to play together. You’ve got to do the little things to win — sacrificing, moving runners over.

“If these guys go do that, we’re not going to have any problems — none whatsoever. … We’re scrappers and fighters. When you’re down, you’re down. But we’re not down and out. We’re coming back.”

The bats, which still include Magglio Ordonez, Paul Konerko, Ray Durham, Jose Valentin, and Carlos Lee, are starting to show some life. James Baldwin has pitched well since returning from shoulder surgery. And Keith Foulke is about as good as it gets in the closer’s role. Trouble is, the White Sox have had trouble getting a lead to Foulke.

Last October, Chicago’s World Series dream died in Seattle.

This May, Chicago hopes it doesn’t start collecting the final nails for its 2001 coffin in Seattle.

Below the radar: What do the Cleveland Indians have to do to get some publicity?

Lost during the Minnesota Twins’ improbable rise to the top of the standings (which got them cover stories in Sports Illustrated and USA TODAY Baseball Weekly) and the White Sox’s plummet toward the bottom has been a Cleveland team that pulled off the quietest 10-game winning streak you hardly heard about.

During their streak, which ended with a loss May 10 to Kansas City, the veteran-laden Indians served notice that they may have the game’s most powerful lineup, even if many fans around the country don’t know it.

In the 10-0 run, the Indians outscored opponents 86-33, never scored fewer than five runs in a game and scored eight or more runs eight times. Manager Charlie Manuel said this year’s team might be as good as the 1995 edition, which went 100-44 and won the AL pennant.

“That (1995) team could come back and win no matter what the deficit was,” Manuel said. “It’s still early, but I think this team can get better.”

He might be right. Travis Fryman, who hit 22 homers and knocked in 106 last year, hasn’t even played in 2000, yet the Indians lead the AL in runs scored (228), batting average (.300), RBI (222), are second in slugging percentage (.474) and third in hits (376).

Offseason acquisitions of Juan Gonzalez (.359, 10 homers, 40 RBI), Ellis Burks (.294, 7, 30) and Marty Cordova (.402, 8, 29) have more than made up for Manny Ramirez’s departure. Roberto Alomar has been his spectacular self (.350) and Russell Branyan has hit nine home runs filling in for Fryman.

Now add in Omar Vizquel, Jim Thome, Kenny Lofton, Wil Cordero and Einar Diaz and you have a lineup that just doesn’t let opposing pitchers breathe.

And the Indians can pitch, too. C.C. Sabathia, Bartolo Colon, Chuck Finley and Dave Burba have been outstanding — and now the Indians await Jaret Wright and Charles Nagy to return after rehab stints in the minors. The bullpen is deep, too.

So, in case you haven’t heard, Cleveland is on another 10-0 run. Tuesday night, the Indians won their 10th straight road game — their longest road winning streak since they won 11 in a row on the road Aug. 30-Sept. 23, 1938. They last lost away from Jacobs Field on April 17 against Baltimore.

Last year, Cleveland, after winning the AL Central title five consecutive years, made a frantic September dash toward the playoffs only to fall one game short. This year, the team is determined to prove 2000 was an aberration, pub or no pub.

Chatter: With 399 homers, the Chicago Cubs’ Sammy Sosa is tied with Al Kaline for 33rd place on the career list. … Seattle’s Ichiro Suzuki extended his hitting streak to 20 games Tuesday, 60 years to the day after Joe DiMaggio began his 56-game hitting streak. Suzuki has a hit in 36 of 38 games this season. … According to the Elias Sports Bureau, New York Mets pitcher Rick Reed, who got the victory Tuesday night in a 1-0 win over the San Diego Padres, is the first pitcher in 30 years to walk only one batter in his first seven starts of the season. In another surprising occurrence involving Reed, the right-hander faced San Diego for the first time in 163 games lifetime in the NL. … Kelly Stinnett’s homer in a 5-1 loss to Arizona extended the Cincinnati Reds’ NL-record streak to 201 consecutive games with at least one run. Deion Sanders (.212) also kept a streak alive, albeit one he’d rather not speak of. He was out of the lineup for a fourth consecutive game since his outfield misplay led to a loss. He pinch-hit in the sixth, drew a walk and was thrown out trying to steal second. …

Here’s one you don’t hear every day, Part 1: Florida Marlins shortstop Alex Gonzalez was a late scratch for Tuesday night’s game after his car was stolen at his home. Here’s one you don’t hear every day, Part 2: Kansas City’s Mark Quinn was unable to play for the Royals because of a scratched eye. He was unable to put in his contact lens. …

Pray for rain: After its 2-0 loss to Montreal, Los Angeles is now 0-6 on Tuesdays this season. … Phillies third-base coach John Vukovich returned to Veterans Stadium on Tuesday, one week after surgery to remove part of a benign tumor from his head. Vukovich said he feels good and is looking forward to returning to the team. … Rex Hudler returned to the Anaheim Angels TV booth Tuesday night, 38 days after he was hospitalized with a minor hemorrhage at the base of his brain. … Minnesota Twins designated hitter David Ortiz is to undergo surgery Thursday on his right wrist, which was broken May 5. …

Sometimes reality bites back: Survivor alum Susan Hawk was the guest conductor for the seventh-inning stretch at Wrigley Field Tuesday night and definitely wasn’t a hit with the fans. She was loudly booed and many fans even re-sang Take Me Out to the Ball Game after she finished.