It happened. The White Sox won.
“That felt like a huge weight off our shoulders,” Andrew Vaughn said after his walk-off home run Sunday capped a seven-run ninth inning and brought an end to a miserable losing streak. “April showers bring May flowers, so here we go.”
It appeared the White Sox were destined to pull a Nigel Tufnel and crank their losing streak to 11, mirroring the ugliness of the night before by coughing up a slim lead in the late innings, this time allowing a five-run eighth to the visiting Rays, who tormented the South Side bullpen, scoring a total of seven runs off late-inning arms Reynaldo López, Kendall Graveman and Aaron Bummer.
But shockingly, the White Sox hit their way to an even larger crooked number against Rays relievers in the ninth, picking up six hits, four of them singles and four of them coming with two outs, to keep the line moving, erase a four-run deficit and pull off the miraculous comeback.
How necessary was it for the White Sox to hear music in their clubhouse postgame for the first time in a week and a half?
“It was incredibly necessary,” Pedro Grifol said.
We’ll see if this bonkers victory ends up being the launching pad the White Sox desperately need to escape one of the worst starts in club history, the antithesis of what this group hoped to prove in the wake of last year’s massively disappointing .500 finish.
The calendar has indeed flipped from April to May, but one game, as Vaughn and Grifol and all the other players who slogged through 10 consecutive losses made clear Sunday evening, will not erase everything that came before it. The White Sox, after all, woke up May 1 a shocking 13 games below .500, and even the much needed postgame celebration at home plate that waited for Vaughn can do nothing more that serve as the first step of climbing out of that deep, deep hole.
“We’ve got some fight in that clubhouse. It takes the ball bouncing your way one time to just lift everybody up and just put us in that mindset of, ‘This can happen,’” Grifol said after the game. “(But) just like I say flush it on the bad ones, we’ve got to flush this one, too, at some point and get back to work on Tuesday.
“I don’t want to say that yet, because I do want to enjoy it a little bit and I want them to enjoy it. … But once we get here Tuesday, we’ve got to flush this one and get to work.”
Not exactly the print-it-on-a-shirt rallying cry for a team that’s looked to be very much in need of one. But at least an acknowledgement of the reality that faces an 8-21 team.
Just like the explanations Grifol and Rick Hahn gave with the losing streak still active, there was little in Sunday’s game that offered a road map for how the White Sox can climb out of this hole.
For all the joy that followed the improbable ninth-inning rally, the rest of the game featured the same hallmarks that sent the team spiraling to 10 consecutive defeats. The bats are still short on power and woefully short when it comes to getting on base. The pitching staff boasts the second-highest ERA in baseball and is putting way too many guys on base for free, with the second-highest walk total and the third most hit batters in the game. Defensive miscues are piling up, and the mental ones aren’t far behind, with Luis Robert Jr.’s communication breakdown leading to an in-game benching Saturday.
Throughout the opening month, there’s been little offered on how the White Sox plan to fix the long list of things that need fixing. Hahn expressed faith in the collection of talent he spent years assembling, carefully rebuilding the roster to contain these exact players, led by the manager and coaching staff he said would get those players right this offseason.
“I believe in this group,” Hahn said Thursday. “You’re not going to see me sitting out here 25 games in the season saying I don’t believe in this group, based on the talent we have in there, the track record these guys have, the focus and commitment to these players. You’re not going to see me abandon ship 25 games in.”
Grifol, meanwhile, has essentially said the team will work its way out of this, that all the work and talent that went into an 8-21 start will yield different results — as his staff addresses what’s gone wrong, of course — as the season moves along.
“We’re all here to get better. We have a plan in place today to get better today to win a baseball game. We’ve got to go out and leave it on the field and try to execute as best we can. That’s really about it. What else can you do? Not show up to the ballpark?” Grifol said Thursday. “It doesn’t change. Just the urgency is raised a little bit because we’re in a funk. But we’re not going to change how we do things. And what I mean, we’re not going to change the work we put in. We’ll get creative with our work, but we’ll continue to work.”
The big changes that fans clamor for in these situations don’t appear to be on the horizon, other than the White Sox getting some good news on the health front. Tim Anderson is due back from his rehab assignment Tuesday, and his presence at the top of the lineup will be quite welcome for an offense that’s scuffled without him. Meanwhile, Garrett Crochet and Liam Hendriks are set to begin their own rehab assignments and will, soon enough, bring much needed heft to the back end of a struggling bullpen.
In a repeat of last year, though, with every bit of good health news comes more bad health news, and Grifol spent part of his postgame session Sunday talking about the fatigued bicep that forced López out of the game and the leg soreness that has Eloy Jiménez at less than 100 percent, despite his four hits in the win. Robert and Andrew Benintendi were out of the starting lineup Sunday with a tight hamstring and a bruised elbow, respectively. There’s still no specific timetable for Yoán Moncada’s return from a protruding disc that’s causing back soreness and discomfort that’s spread to his glutes.
Just as the front office made clear with its decisions this winter, the onus for turning this season around will be on the same players who were tasked with bouncing back from last season. The team placed its faith in Anderson, Robert, Jiménez, Vaughn, Moncada, Yasmani Grandal, Dylan Cease, Lance Lynn, Lucas Giolito and Hendriks, and that’s the group that needs to perform if the White Sox are going to have any chance at competing for the AL Central crown.
Improbably, a team 13 games below .500 is only nine games out of first place.
But it shows the kind of season the bulk of that core is having that three of the team’s top five players through the first month of the season — according to Baseball Reference’s WAR statistic — are Mike Clevinger, Gregory Santos and Jake Burger. Robert is the team leader thanks mostly to his spectacular defensive work in center field, and he’s mired in the middle of a dreadful offensive slump that’s dragged his on-base percentage down to .254, the fifth-lowest among qualified players in baseball.
So the enormity of the challenge should be apparent, and it seems to be to the White Sox, who finally got a much needed dose of happiness Sunday but still need to make quite the climb.
“We were in a pretty bad skid for a while,” Vaughn said. “(This is) just one win. We’ve got plenty more to get.”