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After rough second half in ’12, White Sox’ Paul Konerko looks ready to go

Paul Konerko

Paul Konerko

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Updated: March 25, 2013 12:23AM

GLENDALE, Ariz. — If Paul Konerko seemed a bit distracted Sunday — he struck out twice and grounded out against Royals starter Jeremy Guthrie, halting a nine-game hitting streak — you’ll have to cut him some slack.

Konerko was keeping track of nine Little Leaguers from his son’s baseball team before the game, which goes with the territory of being a father of four. That’s a lot of candy-induced energy to keep in check while getting ready for a major-league baseball game.

(An aside: The Konerko nine were more interested in a free dive into the Sox’ clubhouse supply of candy than receiving high-fives from third baseman Jeff Keppinger. Kids these days).

Konerko, 37, is ready, though. Take it from hitting coach Jeff Manto.

“He’s having a better spring training as far as preparation goes compared to last year,’’ Manto said. “I’m seeing a whole lot more energy than I saw last year, and there’s a lot more certainty this year.’’

Entering Sunday, Konerko was tied for second in the Cactus League with five homers and ranked sixth with a .712 slugging percentage. He also was among the leaders in RBI (12), hits (20) and average (.385).

“The ball is coming off his bat better earlier than it did last year,’’ Manto said. “Last spring, he told me he starts to feel it right about the last week and a half or so of spring training. And, sure enough, the ball started coming off his bat, and you could tell he was ready. But this year, it was like the second week, and I was like, ‘Wow.’ And it hasn’t stopped. So he’s really in a good place.’’

Konerko’s production dropped off in the second half last season after a torrid first half. He finished with a .298 batting average and 26 homers and saw his RBI drop to 75, his fewest since he had 62 in 2008.

There were physical issues that Konerko dealt with but won’t use as an excuse: a concussion, getting hit in the face with a pitch and dealing with a floating chip in his wrist.

“He had that great first half,’’ Manto said. “He’s such a great teammate and great player. There were things like the wrist and the uncertainty of how you feel with the concussion. It had to be scary.

“I’m probably out of place saying this, but he was probably a little uncertain himself. He continued to play with the pain in his wrist. He played extremely hurt last year. And I’m sure with the concussion, that’s a little scary. It’s tough, but he played through all that because of his unselfishness. That’s the type of player he is.’’

Adam Dunn knows how physical discomfort can throw a hitter off track. After his appendectomy in April 2011, he came back too soon and was slightly bent over in his stance because he lost core strength.

“Your mind tells you that you can do things, that you can swing a bat,’’ Dunn said. “But if I watch 2000-whatever video of myself and then two years ago, I don’t even know who that is. It felt normal, but when I see it, really, it’s weird, but I don’t recognize who that is. Then when you’re finally healthy, you’ve put yourself in bad habits, and it’s too late.

“I don’t want to speak for [Konerko], but he feels good at the plate, and that’s good for us.’’

Konerko’s calling card has always been his ability to turn on fastballs on the inner half of the plate. And he’s still doing that, Manto said.

“You can’t get there,’’ Manto said. “From the coaching side or scouting side, you measure hitters, and he’s not showing any signs of misfiring on that pitch at all. It’s still not a good place to go.’’

Royals 8, White Sox 2

FOR THE RECORD: The Sox (11-12-3) fell below .500 for the first time, while the Royals (21-6) built on the best spring-training record in baseball.

ONE SPOT TO GO: Manager Robin Ventura confirmed that Angel Sanchez will be on the team as the utility infielder. Corner infielder Conor Gillaspie, outfielder Dewayne Wise and catcher Hector Gimenez round out the bench. The only roster spot to be determined is in the bullpen if Jesse Crain (groin) isn’t ready. Brian Omogrosso is favored over Ramon Troncoso.

HIDE AND SEEK: Sticking to pitching coach Don Cooper’s tack of not letting AL Central opponents see their pitchers, the Sox used prospect Erik Johnson (four innings, no earned runs), David Purcey, Jeff Gray and Matt Zaleski, a 31-year-old minor-league lifer who will start the Cactus League finale Wednesday against Cleveland.

SOX POWER: Leadoff man Alejandro De Aza hit his first homer of the spring, a solo shot against Royals starter Jeremy Guthrie, who struck out eight and walked none.

BATS: Gordon Beckham (.290)went 1-for-4. Jeff Keppinger was 1-for-2 with an RBI, raising his average to .472. Keppinger has seven hits in his last nine at-bats.

WHERE’S THE DEFENSE? After making four errors against the Dodgers on Saturday night, the Sox made two more, including one by Johnson. Shortstop Alexei Ramirez made the other. The Sox have 27 errors this spring, 11 more than their opponents. “That’s something that needs to be taken care of before we leave here,’’ Ventura said.

ON DECK: Angels at Sox, 3:05 p.m., Gavin Floyd vs. Tommy Hanson.

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