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Paul Konerko is hitting .399, so talk of a .400 season begins to percolate

Paul Konerko's 1.062 OPS is behind only Rangers’ Josh Hamilt(1.138) Reds’ Joey Vot(1.096). | Nam Y. Huh~AP

Paul Konerko's 1.062 OPS is behind only the Rangers’ Josh Hamilton (1.138) and the Reds’ Joey Votto (1.096). | Nam Y. Huh~AP

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Updated: July 3, 2012 11:46AM



What’s happening at the Cell is a story that needs to be told, though the man standing in a corner of the White Sox’ clubhouse won’t be the one telling it. That would be the modest Paul Konerko, who is flirting with hitting .400.

The word “flirt’’ would suggest he’s an active participant in the hoopla over the possibility of reaching that magic number. Trust me, he’s having nothing to do with the idea, let alone flirting with it. This is the kind of guy who wouldn’t acknowledge his own existence even if presented with birth records.

“I don’t think you pay attention to numbers ever until the season is over,’’ he said, “but you certainly don’t want to pay attention to them in May.’’

When Konerko homered in the fourth inning during the Sox’ 12-6 victory Sunday over Cleveland, his average rose to .395. His two previous at-bats had been outs. One should’ve been a bloop single, but Adam Dunn got forced at second.

Konerko singled in the sixth inning to get to .399. In his fifth at-bat, he walked, which, by the way, is No Fun At All.

We’re about two months into the season, which means we have a big enough sample size to say, “You know, this Konerko guy is pretty good.”

Is he good enough to be the first player since Ted Williams to hit .400? Probably not. But … but … but there are a few reasons to think it’s possible.

He’s hot, he’s experienced and he knows American League pitchers the way most people know their phone number. Did I say hot? I mean ridiculously hot. He’s 23-for-36 in his last 10 games.

During Konerko’s 14-year career, he has hit .249 in May, by far his worst month. This May, he’s hitting .410. His best month historically is June (.306). If you go by that, more good things could be ahead.

Even though he’s 36, he might be playing his best baseball. Tack the first two months of this season to the previous two seasons, and you have the best stretch of his career — all after 34.

As a runner, Konerko is slower than the little hand on a clock. The consensus among baseball people is that the next person to hit .400 will have to be a speedster who can get infield hits. It’s why Seattle’s Ichiro Suzuki seemed like the heir apparent to Williams, who 71 years ago hit .406.

“That’s what makes what Paul’s doing amazing,’’ manager Robin Ventura said. “He’s not getting those ones where he tops them in the infield and gets a hit out of it. Everything he gets is reaching an outfielder.’’

Konerko has a hard time believing anyone will ever hit .400 again.

“No way,’’ he said. “The only way I could see it happen is if a guy had one of those years where he was hurt the whole year but just qualified [in official at-bats]. … If [Ichiro] didn’t do it, I’m saying it won’t be done.’’

Konerko is a career .284 hitter, with a best of .313 in 2006, so reaching .400 would seem to be, well, a reach. But, again, he seems to be getting better. When he hit an even .300 last season, it was the first time in his career he had put together back-to-back seasons of .300 or better. He’s well on his way to making it three in a row.

How do you do that at 36?

“You have to pay more attention to your body as you get older because it’s tougher to get out there every day,’’ he said. “So you have to have a plan the night before for what you’re going to do the next day to get ready to play, the work you’re going to do. It’s not fun. I’m being honest.’’

The Sox play a day game in St. Petersburg, Fla., on Monday, and Konerko was already thinking Sunday about how to handle the flight and the quick turnaround. He planned to drink a lot of water Sunday with temperatures in the 90s.

“When I was younger, I was like, ‘Yeah, I had a Coke, I hydrated,’ ’’ he said.

Monday morning will be spent in hot tubs and cold tubs to get his body in a place where it’s ready to play at a high level, maybe even a .400 level.

Is it unreasonable to expect he can keep doing this? Probably. Possibly. Perhaps.

“I’m not going to say that,’’ Ventura said with a smile.



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