With Saturday’s 5-1 win over the Royals, the White Sox moved to 10-8 in May, ensured they will have won four of their last six series, and locked down their first winning homestand of the season.
After an abysmal April, they are showing some signs of life.
“It was tough at the beginning of the season, but now everybody’s better and performing at the level we’re supposed to perform,” Yoán Moncada said through team interpreter Billy Russo.
The Sox went 8-21 in the first month of the season, so even with a solid few weeks of games, they still sit 11 games below a winning record. They know they are performing well of late, but there are also realists in the clubhouse.
“We’re still well under .500. We’ve got a lot of work to do,” Lucas Giolito said. “In this division, I think that [if] we keep playing the way we’re playing we’ll be in a good spot. That’s about it.”
Right on both counts. At 18-29 on the season, you’re not scaring anyone just yet. But in the American League Central, it is not outlandish to imagine that if the Sox keep piling up series wins, they can threaten the top of the division standings. Their division boasts just one team – the Twins – above .500, and if not for the Oakland A’s terrible play, the Royals would be getting a lot more attention for how bad they are.
The recipe for doing that – winning a series at a time and doing it consistently – has a lot of ingredients, but good pitching is one of the primary ones. Things are looking up on that front. Their starting rotation still has one of the higher ERAs in the league, but they seem to be collectively turning a corner.
Giolito went six innings against the Royals Saturday and allowed only one run on a solo homer to Salvador Pérez in the first inning. With that quality start, the Sox have had five quality starts in a row, with each member of the staff earning one, including Michael Kopech’s near-perfect dazzler on Friday night.
“I’m a believer in these guys,” manager Pedro Grifol said. “They have the ability to pitch deep in games, but they also have the ability to pitch and at times dominate. And even when they don’t have their stuff, they have the ability to go out there and give us 95, 100, 105 pitches and give us what we need that day.”
The bullpen is coming together, too. Liam Hendriks is still progressing toward his return from non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma, and the latest update from Grifol was that he will throw another sim game in Cleveland next week, and then the team will assess from there. Reading between the tea leaves, it would seem that Hendriks might be physically ready to pitch, but his return will probably happen once he feels like he is ready to perform to the standard he’s accustomed to, and once he has amassed enough work to try and replicate as close to the equivalent of a spring training workload as possible.
In the meantime, other bullpen arms have stepped up in his absence. Joe Kelly came into Saturday’s game with 16 strikeouts, seven hits allowed, and one walk in 11 ⅓ innings pitched to that point. In other words, for every baserunner allowed, he has struck out two. Kelly added a 17th strikeout Saturday, tilting that ratio in his favor a little further.
Kendall Graveman has a 3.26 ERA while keeping opposing hitters to a .162 batting average, and he has three saves and six holds so far, including finishing Kopech’s brilliant performance Friday. With Hendriks out, Kelly, Graveman, and the rest of the bullpen have had to be flexible about their roles.
“We had a meeting, and we said, ‘Look, there’s no ego in this room. We don’t care if we get a save or a hold. Whenever we pitch we’re just going to go out and compete until you tell us that we’re done’,” Graveman told CHGO.
“Our job is simple. Whenever your name is called, you go get three outs, and that’s kind of what we’ve told [Grifol] from the start of the season.”
It helps to have veteran arms like Kelly and Graveman in the bullpen to spearhead this kind of mentality. Experience taking on a lot of different roles helps – Kelly has been a starter, a long reliever, and a high-leverage bullpen arm in his career – but getting guys to take on the role that’s best for the team over the one they might want for themselves requires having the right personnel.
“You gotta sign the guys with the personality like that. You gotta find the right people who don’t really care about that,” Kelly told CHGO. “That goes into doing your research and understanding what type of people you have in your clubhouse and who you have in your pen.
“It’s different every day, so nothing affects me. I don’t give a shit. It’s one of those things, just get the ball and ‘alright.’”
This has worked of late, but like the team as a whole, they are recovering from a very poor start to the season. Even with the sturdy performances lately, Sox relievers still have the second-highest bullpen ERA in baseball (5.52).
But that’s on par with where this team is as a whole in the third week of May: They have played pretty well lately, but they were very, very bad for the first 30ish games of the season. It will take a lot to turn the Titanic around. The good news is that putting the last few weeks of Sox baseball under the microscope would seem to show that all the right pieces are in place for them to – potentially – accomplish an epic turnaround.