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After White Sox’ latest base-running blunder, is full health enough to spark turnaround?

Vinnie Duber Avatar
July 5, 2022

A day later, it was still quite the talking point.

Because something like this is rare, even by baseball standards.

Adam Engel and Yoán Moncada were both doubled off – though “tripled off” now seems a necessary addition to the game’s lexicon – when Byron Buxton tracked down a deep fly ball in center field Monday night, an embarrassing triple play that snuffed out a promising rally, helped the White Sox lose the first game in a crucial stretch against division rivals and added to the list of disappointing base-running blunders the team has made this season.

Fresh off a three-game sweep of the contending Giants in San Francisco, the sub-.500 White Sox had reason to feel good about the prospect of a turnaround. But these flashes that have manifested “is this it?” questions have always been followed by stumbles, each step forward accompanied by a step back. Hence the team’s third-place standing in the AL Central and its underwater win-loss record.

Such was the case as a string of 19 games against the Twins, Tigers and Guardians started with a thud Monday night. Pregame talk of this being a make-or-break stretch looked ominous when Joe Kelly allowed four runs in the top of the 10th inning, extras necessary because the White Sox’ comeback from a 2-1 deficit didn’t make it past a tie game, thanks to the triple play.

Though an offense that has produced few runs (the White Sox ranked 21st in the bigs in scoring when the sun came up Tuesday) and even fewer home runs (27th in that department) has been the biggest culprit, base-running mistakes have played their part in the team’s disappointing start to a season with championship expectations.

There was Danny Mendick’s goof getting thrown out at second on what should’ve been a run-scoring sac fly in Toronto, which helped to erase the good feelings from a convincing sweep in Detroit. And there were Seby Zavala’s twin snafus at second base during a lost series in Anaheim, which dampened the positivity from a series that featured an 11-run night and a 4-2 road trip through California that allowed the White Sox to slightly grow their still woeful run differential to minus-39.

But Monday’s moment might loom the largest in the minds of fans, who so often tie fundamental miscues like fielding errors and base-running mistakes to the team’s overall quality – and readiness for the big time.

Though Tony La Russa insisted that didn’t rank in the top 10 base-running blunders he’s seen in his lengthy Hall-of-Fame career, he was blunt that his team’s fundamentals are indeed in need of improvement.

“I think we’re a work in progress,” La Russa said. “We’re a work in progress. But I see progress.”

La Russa made sure to follow up on that statement, providing the critical context that just because he sees room for improvement doesn’t mean these White Sox aren’t built for success. He sees guys with the right attitude to get better over the course of the rest of the season.

“If you take every game from the first three months … there ain’t no way that I’m negative about this team,” he said. “But you’re realistic that we’re a work in progress and we’ve got to be improved.

“I’m never going to not recognize where their heart and souls are. If you make a mistake, it’s bad managing, bad coaching, we’ll fix it. That’s why I believe in these guys, and we’ll get better bit by bit. Hopefully sooner rather than later.

“There are a lot of players that I’ve been around … that you try to talk to players about improving and (it’s), ‘You don’t think I can play? You don’t think I have confidence?’ No. What’s going to happen is you’re not going to get better. These guys, they’re open-minded and they want to get better. You get better by making mistakes: Acknowledge them, work on them, fix them.”

La Russa has hammered home his accountability, his insistence that the buck stops at his desk. And these White Sox are indeed a visibly hard-working bunch. The clubhouse culture that has long been such a strength doesn’t seem much different because of the results on the field.

But they’ll need to play much different baseball than what they’ve shown over the season’s first three months to dig out of the hole they’ve created for themselves.

Again, this season started with championship expectations, and considering the roster, considering the work it took to rebuild the organization over the last half decade, those expectations haven’t gone anywhere, as different a spot the team is in than it figured to be at this point in the campaign. A World Series contender with a stranglehold on the division this team is not, and it’s shown nothing in three months to convince that it will suddenly be one tomorrow.

But what tomorrow does bring is a step closer to what these White Sox have argued is the biggest key to them realizing their full potential: full health.

Eloy Jiménez, who was in the White Sox’ clubhouse and took batting practice Tuesday, will be back from the injured list in the next couple days, La Russa said, while Yasmani Grandal reported that he’s heading out on a rehab assignment Wednesday that could have him back for the start of the second half. Liam Hendriks made his return Monday and pitched a Mjolnir-worthy 1-2-3 inning in the loss. Engel, too, was in his first game back from an IL stay. Moncada has navigated through multiple ailments this season, and the starting rotation has rounded into shape with Lance Lynn’s return last month.

Ravaged by injuries from spring training to this day, the White Sox are finally getting to put the pieces of the puzzle together, a puzzle they still believe that, when assembled, will be championship-caliber.

“I think if everybody is healthy, the rest is going to take care of itself,” Moncada said through team interpreter Billy Russo. “Health is a big if.”

Moncada’s right, and it would be him to point that out, what with now three straight seasons of him almost constantly playing through one malady or another. With the bad luck the White Sox have had to this point, fans almost brace for each return from the IL to be traded for another weeks-long absence.

But getting back to full strength is no panacea for what has plagued the White Sox, who have carried mostly quiet bats, experienced occasional pitching problems and made ill-timed errors in other facets throughout the year, from Day 1.

A healthy White Sox roster, as Engel put it Monday, would strike as a scary team. But the only ones scared by what the White Sox have done to this point have been the fans in the stands.

Getting healthy is all well and good. But the White Sox are going to have to start playing a lot better, too.

“Just looking good on paper,” La Russa said, “that doesn’t take you very far. It’s taking it on the field and pitching, making plays and hitting. There is a confidence … (when) you look around, you see the team (at full strength). But then you’ve got to be productive, and that’s the challenge.”

And how does that happen?

“Just keep working,” Moncada, batting .183, said of improving his own fortunes at the plate, echoing statements that have been made by his teammates about the collective struggles. “I need to keep working, and that’s the only way that I can tell you how I’m going to get my timing back. I just need to keep working.”

There’s probably plenty of truth to that. But its lack of specificity is unlikely to please many answer-seekers out there.

“We just have to get back to being us,” Grandal said, offering his own take. “First and foremost, in order to win games, you have to score runs. The offense has to get back on hunting and attacking, and whatever happens, happens.

“Our pitching has been pretty good, yes. The bullpen had some struggles about halfway through (the first half), but you have to think about the fact of how much work those guys have gotten. That’s going to happen. Hopefully in the second half, we don’t put as much pressure on the bullpen and our starters go more than five, six, seven (innings), which allows those guys to rest more. … If you do happen to make a postseason run, those guys are (going to need to be) good to go.”

Hit better. Pitch better. Run the bases better.

It sounds like, “no shit, Sherlock,” but here the White Sox are, stuck staring up at two teams in a division they were pegged to run away with and trying to claw their way back to .500 – where they haven’t been since before Memorial Day.

It’s all true.

They must play better, they must play a lot differently than they have for three months, if their season is going to end where they wanted it to, deep into October.

Health is nice. Runs are better. Wins are better.

“Anything can happen,” Grandal said. “I think in my career there’s been plenty of times where I’ve been on a team where we’ve been way more games down than we are now. I’ve been on teams where they’ve been down 10-plus games and they’ve won the division. I’ve been on teams that have been down eight, nine games at the half and won the division. Anything can happen.”

It’s going to have to start happening soon.

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