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Rookie managers Ventura, Matheny face crucible of pennant races

They turned onto a private road, drove to the top of a mountain and pulled into a house that overlooked a vineyard and a glistening ocean. This was last October, the Ozzie Guillen Show was over after an entertaining but ultimately exhausting eight-year-run in the Second City, and White Sox owner Jerry Reinsdorf and general manager Kenny Williams had flown from Chicago to Southern California on Reinsdorf's private jet to convince Robin Ventura to become the team's next manager. After they made the drive from the airport and arrived at Ventura's house and took in the killer view, Reinsdorf and Williams glanced over at each other. "We knew what each other was thinking: Would anyone be crazy enough to leave this?" Reinsdorf recalled.

As he sat down with Reinsdorf and Williams in his living room that morning, Ventura was very much on the fence about stepping away from his comfortable life in California --- "I was pretty much 50/50 at that point," he recalled earlier this year. Ventura first had to make one thing clear. "I'm not going to say yes just because I'm being offered this job -- I want to do it right," he said to the famously hard line owner and GM. "I know how you guys are. But this isn't just going to be me doing the interviews and you guys making the calls. I need to be the guy that is creating the environment I want."

Here we are now, five months into the Robin Ventura Era on the South Side, and it's clear that the White Sox --- who began the week with a two-game lead in the AL Central and were set to host a four-game series against second-place Detroit starting on Monday --- are Ventura's team. The laid-back former third baseman, now a frontrunner for the AL Manager of the Year award, has his funky-pants wearin', moustache-rockin' team playing loose. He has the respect of his players, who come to the ballpark ready to put in their work: Ventura's team is the only one in the majors that takes live infield practice before games. ("We're probably the only team in the history of baseball to take infield when it's 115 degrees," Adam Dunn told the Chicago Tribune.)

"Robin has been unflappable," says White Sox assistant general manager Rick Hahn. "He's had to deal with a lot. We've had more injuries than we've had in recent years. Losing John Danks, having to deal with the transition of Chris Sale into the rotation, bringing up Jose Quintana. There was a point after the All-Star break where we literally threw eight rookie pitchers in one game. But Robin is unflappable. Whether we win or we lose, whether we get swept in Detroit or go on a seven-game win streak, it's the same approach to tomorrow's game, and he's essentially the same guy. The tone he sets in the clubhouse has turned out to be one of this greatest strengths."

The arrival of the former All-Star third baseman has helped fuel comeback seasons for veterans Adam Dunn, Alex Rios and Jake Peavy. "Robin's thing from day one was, 'Look, I wasn't here last year, most of the staff wasn't here last year, all I know is what you guys are capable of doing, and what's happened in the past is irrelevant," says Hahn. "It's a clean slate and I'm going to make my own impressions about how you're going to contribute and how you're going to fit in. And I think that what Rios and Dunn needed more than anything was that fresh start."

The early success of Ventura and the Cardinals' Mike Matheny -- another rookie skipper who began the year with no managerial experience at any level but, like Ventura, now has his team in position for a playoff run -- has proven that when it comes to major league managers, experience is overrated.

"Look at Bobby [Valentine] and Ozzie [Guillen] -- two big-name moves made to make a splash, but how have those turned out?" says a National League executive. "I think what we're seeing is that in this day and age, more important than experience is how they manage a clubhouse. Experience clearly isn't necessary. I think going forward teams are going to be more open-minded and think more outside the box with their hires."

In year one of the post-Albert Pujols era, Matheny has St. Louis positioned for another World Series run, even without ace Chris Carpenter and Lance Berkman and with Adam Wainwright struggling to rediscover his mojo. The Cardinals have the best offense in the National League -- they rank first in runs, hits, batting average and OPS -- helping them to a 1½ game lead for the NL's second wild-card spot.

But now comes the hard part for the two rookie managers. How they lead under the hot lights of September and, if they get that far, October, will be one of the fascinating things to watch down the stretch. Matheny must carefully manage his aging, fragile veterans (Carlos Beltran has been playing with a sore knee and a hurting left hand; Carpenter, who's yet to make a start this season, is preparing for a possible return to the rotation) while holding off the Pirates and Dodgers in the wild-card race.

"Wainwright is the key there," says a scout. "He needs to get hot for them to make any sort of serious run. But if I were them I'd be concerned that the workload has taken a toll and he's not right physically, after missing all of last year [to Tommy John surgery]. His sinker just isn't the same."

The White Sox, meanwhile, begin a critical four-game series with the Tigers on Monday. When it comes to in-game management the White Sox like what they've seen from Ventura, who's been guided by wizard pitching coach Don Cooper ("From the start, in-game decision making has been a strong point of Robin's -- frankly, stronger than we may have anticipated," says Hahn), but from here on out every managerial chess move will be scrutinized.

Ventura must find a way to win with a pitching staff featuring 10 rookies (eight in the bullpen). One of them, Quintana, has been rocked for 12 runs in his past two starts and is now at 163 2/3 innings for the year, well above his previous career-high of 102 innings. Sale has pitched 169 innings and has been showing signs that he's hit a wall as well. The White Sox have gotten three quality starts over their last 15 games. In the AL Central, it could be win the division or bust, with the Rays, A's, Angels and Orioles looking like strong contenders for the two wild-card slots if they don't overtake their division leaders. (All four of those teams have better records than the White Sox and Tigers.)

So far Ventura has pushed the right buttons. The great managerial gambles in Chicago and St. Louis have paid off. But now the real test begins.

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