Jake Burger’s teammates said they didn’t even know the ball was going to clear the wall.
They didn’t think he hit the bases-loaded blast that won Sunday afternoon’s contest in walk-off fashion hard enough.
They should know by now not to doubt Burger’s power.
“He’s one of the better mistake hitters I’ve been around,” Liam Hendriks said of the White Sox’ hero of the day after the team celebrated a 6-2 win to complete a sweep. “If it’s in the zone, he’s going to do some damage. It’s one thing he’s really showed up this year by doing. He doesn’t miss the mistakes.
“Some pitches he’s hitting haven’t been mistakes. They are good pitches. It just shows the talent he’s got.”
Burger’s emergence as one of the White Sox’ most dangerous bats — especially when the games are played on the South Side — has been one of the bigger stories for a lineup that didn’t feature him on Opening Day. He didn’t make the roster out of spring training, and only an early-season injury to Yoán Moncada gave him an opportunity to show he belonged in the big leagues.
Obviously, he’s proven he belongs, and not only are dramatic defensive changes underway to secure him as much playing time as possible — Eloy Jiménez has gone from everyday DH to most-of-the-time right fielder, while Burger has earned some run at second base — but fans are starting to hurl social-media complaints Pedro Grifol’s way whenever Burger’s not a part of the starting lineup.
But Burger’s day was not without its down moments, and because of it, it was a microcosm of the White Sox’ offensive day as a whole Sunday and a fitting example of the state of the team’s entire offensive identity.
Burger struck out three times in his first three at-bats, and indeed, he’s been a strikeout machine, with 44 of them in the 43 games he’s played. The White Sox, as a team, were flummoxed by Matthew Boyd, the Tigers starting pitcher who entered with an ERA a shade under 6.00 but whiffed nine Sunday. Once the Tigers went to the bullpen, the White Sox fared better, and individually, Burger walked in his fourth trip to the plate.
The White Sox waited till the last minute to strike the defining blow, doing it with plate discipline against, weirdly enough, Alex Lange, the Tigers’ closer who just earned AL Reliever of the Month honors with a sensational May. They briefly bowed out of their free-swinging ways — after striking out 14 times before Lange entered — and Moncada and the famously aggressive Tim Anderson drew walks to load the bases ahead of Burger’s game-ending salami.
It’s a dichotomy that won’t disappear for the White Sox, who were plagued by a hideous lack of plate discipline during their woeful opening month before winning more than half their games in May, barely. As the starting pitching and relief pitching have taken turns looking superb, the offense has yet to crystallize. Before Sunday’s game, almost speaking a strikeout-heavy affair into existence, Grifol lamented that his team is still chasing too often for his liking, and asked for how he identifies improvement in that department, he offered the managerial equivalent of “duh.”
“(I identify improvement by the players) not chasing,” he said, matter-of-factly. “But it’s not happening as quickly as we want it, as they want it.”
Had Burger’s batted ball in the bottom of the ninth not cleared the wall, whether by game-ending single or game-ending sacrifice fly, the White Sox would have won by a 3-2 score, scoring just eight total runs in their weekend series despite earning a three-game sweep. That the ball did reach the seats inflated the series total to 11.
The White Sox need wins, and they will absolutely take them where they can get them. But this has hardly been the offensive awakening Grifol envisions from a lineup built to bash the ball.
“I truly believe that at some point, these guys are going to figure this thing out together. They’re going to get hot together, and that’s going to be really nice to see,” Grifol said. “There’s a lot of talent here, there’s a lot of good work being done. And it’s not just monotonous work, it’s creative work, it’s new stuff, new decision-making, new programs in those machines. There’s a lot of stuff being done to help these guys improve and prepare for games.
“I’m of the belief that this is going to happen at some point, hopefully sooner than later. But if you look at it, we’ve had guys here that have had incredible years in the past, and they still haven’t gotten hot yet. They still haven’t. Eloy had his 13-game hit streak or whatever, but he still hasn’t really gotten hot yet. (Andrew Benintendi) hasn’t gotten hot yet. TA hasn’t gotten hot yet. (Luis) Robert’s gotten hot for a few weeks here and there.
“Overall, these are guys who have done it at this level at a high level that have yet to get hot. They’re going to get hot at some point. Maybe it happens all at once. We’ve just got to keep working, that’s it. Keep working and go play the game hard and play to win.”
That work paid off late Sunday, but it was far from apparent throughout the day. That’s become a frustration point not just for fans sick of seeing many of the same pitch-selection problems that plagued the team a year ago, but for the guys yet to accomplish what they want to accomplish.
“I corrected some of my early at-bats in that fourth one when I got the walk, not trying to do too much,” Burger said. “Going into that fifth one, (Lange) doesn’t want to bounce one or let a passed ball get by. Just kind of zone in one spot, and hopefully he throws it and slow yourself down.
“This one feels good. I’ll still be thinking about those first three at-bats with this one. It’s always a learning curve, and you’ve just got to keep working.”
The best news when it comes to getting the White Sox’ offense to where the manager, coaching staff and players want it to be is obviously that they have their full complement of hitters for the first time all season. Jiménez has been back from an injured-list stay for a while now, and he, Moncada, Anderson and Burger all spent time on the IL early in the campaign. Elvis Andrus returned from the IL on Friday.
While role players like Burger, Gavin Sheets and Romy Gonzalez have emerged as bats that need to be in the lineup as often as possible, the big boppers have returned, too. Now Grifol has the good problem — albeit still a problem — of figuring out how to put a daily puzzle together so the team can, in his words, “figure this thing out together.”
We’ll see if health can equal success. If April was a plummet into a gigantic hole, then May was whiplash. Even the last week or so can describe things aptly: After winning seven of nine, with three straight series wins, the White Sox dropped two of three in Detroit and lost a series to the Angels before opening June with a sweep of the same Tigers team it stumbled against a week earlier.
It’s hard to get entirely back on track that way, but it’s better than losing 10 straight. Given the laughable state of the AL Central at large — it took two to tango and make major league history with three runs all scored on wild pitches in Saturday’s goofy win over the Tigers — the White Sox are just five and a half games out of first place.
It’s what makes an offensive awakening all the more important for this group, considering those bats getting hot could mean a vault into the division lead.
To Grifol, that means having more moments like the ninth inning Sunday than the eight that preceded it. More at-bats like Burger’s fourth and fifth than his first three.
“This lineup that we’ve got,” Grifol said, “if we control the strike zone and we get good pitches to hit, we’re capable of doing a lot of damage.
“That’s what we’re going to continue to work on.”