As Lucas Giolito twirled another White Sox pitching gem Saturday night, I wasn’t on the South Side.
Instead, I was out in the Western Suburbs, doing the kind of things we do here in Chicagoland when summer finally arrives, hanging out in a backyard talking baseball.
I hadn’t met most of the folks in attendance, so the inevitable question of what I do came up. And after my answer came reactions fitting a hardly unexpected theme:
“Oh, so things haven’t been going so well.”
“What’s wrong with them?”
“Who do you think they’ll trade at the deadline?”
I had, of course, previously met our host, a big White Sox fan, and he shot me a look of disappointment as soon as we started talking, before launching into some doomsday preaching about his favorite team, not unlike the kind of things I see and hear from other White Sox fans every day on social media and in the comments of our live shows.
But as he decried their spot in the standings, I checked my phone. Giolito had powered another win. The White Sox were seven games out of first place. That’s all.
Memorial Day, next weekend, is the traditional point at which front offices make up their minds about their clubs’ prospects. It’s also the traditional start of summer. And after an 8-21 April — the team’s underwater status so much worse than it was after the massive disappointment of last year’s .500 finish — the White Sox indeed looked destined for a summer-long slog and a potential recalibration of the direction of the franchise.
But as I told so many Saturday night and I’ll tell you now: Not so fast, my friend.
That’s not me rushing to trumpet a definitive turnaround for these White Sox after a few OK weeks, culminating in Sunday’s win over the Royals, which completed the South Siders’ first sweep of the season. They’re slightly better than even in May, now 11-9, and their problems are far from banished, with Eloy Jiménez and Elvis Andrus on the injured list, Mike Clevinger joining them there Sunday afternoon and Tim Anderson struggling at the plate while working all the way back from an early season knee injury.
But May has obviously not had the same feel as the season’s opening month, one that featured a 10-game losing streak and endless reruns of the fundamental problems that plagued the 2022 edition.
With the weather feeling oh so summery Sunday and 80s forecasted for the coming week, Chicago’s finest season is upon us. And with it, the White Sox provided a reminder that it’s not time to tune out just yet.
“This isn’t over,” Gavin Sheets said earlier in the week. “It’s not over. We’ve got too much talent in here to just lay (down and roll) over. We’ve got some big matchups these next two weeks, and we can still make a statement, have a great May and take it into June and see what happens. This isn’t over.”
That inspiring proclamation came in the middle of what ended up being a winning home stand. In a lesson on how we probably shouldn’t read too much into a handful of games, the White Sox were 2-5 in the seven games coming into that Tuesday-night win over the Guardians. But that was the first of 13 straight games — and 16 of 19 games — against AL Central opponents, a seeming opportunity for the White Sox to make up some ground in the division standings. They’ve won five of the first six of those games.
Considering the Twins, nor any other division foe, has done much to bury the White Sox after they dug themselves such a deep hole in April, the opportunity seems real.
Here the White Sox sit, playing better — certainly much better than they were playing a month ago — with a pretty realistic shot at staying in this race, a pretty realistic shot of giving fans a reason to tune in all summer long.
I’m not going to tell you the White Sox are going to do enough to win what to this point has been a miserable AL Central. But I’m also not going to tell you they can’t keep you on the edge of your lawn chair this summer.
“The biggest thing is you’ve got to push off the record and you’ve got to look at the division. We’re seven and a half games back, or whatever it is, and that’s our goal is to win the division,” Sheets told CHGO on Sunday. “You can’t be looking at what Tampa’s doing or what other teams outside your division are doing. Our goal is to win the division. And we’re seven and a half games back, and we’ve got a stretch of 16 of 19 against our division. So we’ve got to handle what’s in front of us.
“It’s coming back to now where we’re like, ‘We have plenty of talent here. We have the ability to win this division.’ Obviously, April was tough for us, it was kind of a gut check, but we still realize that we have the talent here to win. That’s the most important thing. So if we can keep that and keep pushing forward and keep having good 10-game stretches at a time, we’ll be right where we need to be.”
Sheets has long been one for optimism, but he has reason to be grinning these days, whether it’s the spirited play of himself and fellow 2017 draftee Jake Burger or the string of stellar outings from the starting staff, which got its sixth straight quality start from Lance Lynn on Sunday. Even the bullpen, which has owned scary numbers for much of the campaign, has done its part, with 17.2 scoreless innings in the last seven games. Luis Robert Jr., Yoán Moncada and Yasmani Grandal each entered Sunday’s game with an OPS north of .800. Jiménez is receiving rave reviews for his recovery from an appendectomy as a rehab stint draws closer.
“Things are starting to come together a little better,” Andrew Benintendi told CHGO on Sunday. “We’re starting to click a little more, as far as scoring runs and pitching well at the same time, where before, sometimes, it was hit or miss. I think as guys get healthier and start to feel good, we’re trending in the right direction, but still a long way to go.”
That, obviously, is the moral of the story, that any improvement comes with the context of the team’s dreadful start. But those early season doldrums have perhaps played a part in adjusting this team’s mindset and attitude, two things that were detrimental a season ago. As Andrew Vaughn cracked after that seven-run ninth inning on the final day of the opening month, “April showers bring May flowers.”
The flowers haven’t fully bloomed for this White Sox team quite yet. But those April showers have had a positive effect, it seems.
“We’ve really come together as a team, first and foremost. I think the clubhouse vibes are right where they need to be for a winning club,” Sheets said. “I think we just all bought in. We pull for each other more. In the beginning, when you’re going through some things individually, you try to fix things by yourself. And when everybody’s kind of going through it together, it’s tough to come together as a club. But we’ve done that, and it’s been pretty special.
“Pedro’s energy has been great. From the beginning, he’s always said, ‘This won’t break us. It’ll test us, but it’s not going to break us.’ And that’s kind of been our motto this whole time. Everybody’s buying in, everybody’s coming together, and it’s been fun. Hopefully we can continue this through (the end of) May and through June.”
Indeed, even the hyper-focused South Side skipper was applauding the team’s efforts to turn that awful April into something positive.
“Nobody wants to go through adversity, but adversity is education,” Grifol said after Sunday’s win. “We’ve learned a lot through our struggles. … When you go through a patch that we went through, we’ve just got to be open-minded and know that we need to reflect, educate ourselves, improve, get better, communicate. That’s all we can do. That’s why we don’t get too far ahead.”
Everyone in the clubhouse has echoed Grifol’s “one game at a time” approach, seemingly the team’s only hope for saving its season. Time will be the only thing able to tell if that approach worked, obviously. But a spurt of good play in May has helped restore confidence.
“Coming out of spring training, your hopes are always high, and you never really know what’s going to happen. But in the spring, we definitely thought we could be a team that competes and wins a division, and we all still think that and that’s what we’re striving for,” Benintendi said. “We’ve been put in a hole a little bit, so we’re probably trying to think not too far ahead but just think one day at a time, one game at a time and go from there.
“It’s been better. Obviously, winning takes care of everything. The more games we win, the better everybody’s attitude is (and the better everybody) feels. No one’s going to put more pressure on us than we do ourselves. So we’ve just got to go out there, play and have fun and win games.”
Winning, at last, in some form, has come. Of course, it’s all about keeping it up, as these White Sox well know.
But rather than easily tuning out on a team with no shot, White Sox fans now have a legitimate reason to tune in:
Can they do it?
Welcome to summer in Chicago, where following two baseball teams is as necessary as soaking up the sun, sitting by the lake and hopping from one street fest to another. It’s as necessary as a backyard party. The White Sox, despite that unbelievably lousy April, are making sure you can’t take this summer off.