It’s April. And the White Sox know that their sluggish start and a tough couple of weeks won’t define the marathon that is a major league season.
But Pedro Grifol spent the spring drilling this refrain into his players: You can’t win a championship during spring training, but you can lose one during spring training.
Surely, that must apply to the earliest portion of the regular season, too, right?
So after stumbling to a 6-11 record through their first 17 games, the most recent loss coming just moments earlier in the first half of Tuesday’s doubleheader, they found something the entire fan base begged them to locate during the massive disappointment of 2022.
The White Sox found some urgency.
“We were trying to get a win,” Seby Zavala said of the second game. “We’ve got to get this thing rolling.”
Following a 3-0 victory in which Lucas Giolito and three relievers from the team’s much maligned bullpen held the visiting Phillies to one hit and no runs, Grifol spent the majority of his postgame media session discussing what had been going on in the dugout, where the atmosphere was apparently another welcome change from the .500 doldrums of a year ago.
“That dugout was electric from Pitch 1, which was great to see,” the first-year skipper said. “Guys were together, they were pulling for each other. The dugout was a big part of us winning that ballgame tonight.
“There’s some urgency here today. We needed this ballgame. Can’t get too far behind. It’s early, yeah, of course. But we don’t want to get to a place where we’ve got to climb too far.”
A “prove it” mindset was the theme of spring training, the White Sox knowing they had to show that they weren’t the team that underperformed so dramatically in 2022. Through the first 18 games of the campaign, they haven’t done that. Inconsistencies abound, injuries continue to plague a talented roster, and the pitching has been particularly woeful, the 7.57 relief ERA they carried into Tuesday the highest in the league and their 81 walks the game’s second-highest total, behind only the lowly A’s.
One game won’t change all that, not until it becomes a streak, of course. But Giolito did his best to put the team on his back Tuesday. He tossed six no-hit innings before a high pitch count turned the bid into a shot at a combined no-hitter, which Aaron Bummer coughed up with a leadoff double in the eighth. But that was the only hit the Phillies mustered, and even the bullpen turned in a terrific night in finishing off the shutout.
Giolito didn’t get a chance to complete a second no-hitter in this ballpark, but he was providing flashbacks to that 2020 season, when he no-hit another Pennsylvania club before dominating the A’s in a playoff performance for the ages. That day in Oakland, Tim Anderson called Giolito’s dominance “bully stage,” and boy, did the right-handed look like he was in bully stage Tuesday.
But don’t just take my word for it. Take it from someone who knows that version of Giolito well. Giolito made a habit of dominating the Royals when Grifol was part of the coaching staff in Kansas City. He’s seen it before. He saw it again Tuesday.
“That’s him, right there. That’s him,” Grifol said. “And it’s not about the stuff. It’s about the mound presence. It’s about the confidence. It’s, ‘Here I am, I’m going to throw it over the plate, hit it if you can. And if you can’t, you can’t. If you can, you can.’ That’s what I remember, and that’s what he’s been showing the last three outings.
“He just had a presence about him today. Even in our meetings today, before the game, he just had a presence about him. He was locked in, and you could just tell. I could just tell. I’ve been watching him pitch for a long time from the other side, and those are the things I’ve been speaking about.
“That’s the guy I remember.”
Grifol hasn’t just been waiting for that version of Giolito to reappear after the righty had a disappointing year in 2022. It was part of his springtime messaging. He wanted Giolito to know.
“We had a very long conversation in spring training about that topic that really put a light bulb on for me,” Giolito said. “After coming off a really tough year, he reminded me of the pitcher I can be, how hard it is to game plan for the type of stuff I have.
“He’s seen two versions of me out there: a version (where) you can see on the other side the confidence isn’t really there, it looks like I’m searching, and that’s really when the hitters will get hungry and pounce, versus when I’m controlling the pace of the game. It makes it a lot harder for them.”
Giolito was just a walk and a hit batter away from bidding for perfection Tuesday night, his seven strikeouts a repeat of the seven Twins he fanned in his previous outing, another very good one. It was a preview of what could be for these White Sox if Giolito can regain his old form. He was a bona fide ace in 2019 and 2020 and could be again.
The White Sox need performances like these to become more the norm from their pitchers, and that rang especially true Tuesday, when Lance Lynn was hit around by the Phillies in the first half of the doubleheader.
“I’ve got to be better,” he said. “Right now, I’m not in a good rhythm, I’m not throwing the ball well, and I’m not having productive outings. I’ve got to be better.”
But that could be a team-wide mantra, which is why it’s going to take more than just one good night for the White Sox to truly deliver on all the “prove it” talk from the spring.
That Jake Burger has stormed into a tie for the team lead with five home runs is a feel-good story, sure. Heck, he’s just annihilating the baseball, his first-inning dinger Tuesday night leaving the bat at more than 118 miles an hour, a Statcast record for a White Sox long ball. But Burger, who failed to make the Opening Day roster, owning the title of the season’s hottest hitter is also somewhat damning of what the rest of the lineup has been unable to do.
Injury updates from Grifol on Tuesday for injured stars Yoán Moncada and Tim Anderson did nothing to provide ideas on when either might be returning to the lineup. And as Grifol is seemingly running out of reliable options to turn to in the bullpen, even the pitcher who started the day with the lowest ERA of the bunch, Jimmy Lambert, was tagged for a two-run homer by ex-teammate Josh Harrison that put the first game of Tuesday’ s doubleheader out of reach, adding more frustration to the state of the relief pitching.
“I just think these guys are going to figure this thing out quick,” Grifol said of his bullpen pitchers before Tuesday’s games. “They’ve gone through some of this before, and they’ve battled through it. They are going to continue to battle through it, and we’ll be sitting here in a few weeks from now saying how these guys have made adjustments.
“I believe in these guys. I’m going to keep giving these guys the ball, and I trust them to get us where we want to go.”
But for all the fans already pulling their hair out — or worse, considering changing the channel — in the wake of another April of “it’s early” explanations, the White Sox are feeling what you want them to feel. Talk of “needed” wins fewer than 20 games into the schedule are relatively unheard of. And yet the White Sox are seeing there’s immediate work to be done to avoid falling into an inescapable hole.
Yes, there’s urgency at 35th and Shields.
“I’m not going to call games ‘must-win games’ until you’re deeper in the season,” Giolito said, “but (we’re) kind of treating it as such, having that sense of urgency, having that high energy.
“We played 18 innings tonight, a lot of baseball. The first game didn’t go our way. You can almost expect (the mood) to be more down right now. The dugout was electric.
“That’s what I love to see.”