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It’s a long season, and asking if the frustrations the White Sox faced in April are ancient history is akin to asking whether the most recent round of winter weather is the last we Chicagoans will experience before summer.
Indeed, it was wintry on the North Side the last two nights, anything but baseball weather as Wrigley Field was pelted with wind, rain and bitter cold. But the White Sox came away with two wins against their Crosstown rivals, providing at least a temporary respite from their first-month doldrums and providing a glimmer of hope that the car is out of the ditch and traveling down the road toward October.
But again, it’s a long season. And thinking about October in early May is asking for trouble from those baseball gods that always have Tony La Russa looking over his shoulder.
“We win three in a row,” La Russa said of his team’s modest winning streak, “(but) we’re minus two (under .500). Get over .500 by a bunch, and then start getting serious.
“But as long as we compete, I’m happy – not happy – but I know that those are our numbers. And we’re getting closer to getting healthy. We’re surviving.”
Well, for two nights – three days if you count the series-capping win against the Angels on Monday – mere survival never seemed so fun for the South Siders.
They believe they’ve put that miserable stretch of losing – one that featured eight straight defeats and just two wins over an 11-game span – behind them, citing a five-run uprising in the ninth inning of Sunday’s loss as a turning point.
Immediately afterward, they cited it as a glimpse of what they consider normalcy. Days later, it’s being looked upon as a return to form.
“Despite that tough stretch there, we didn’t lose faith,” Lucas Giolito said. “We knew we were very, very close, and I really think that that last inning – it’s a game we lost against the Angels – that last inning when we put up five, that was kind of the turning point where it’s like we collectively as a group were like, ‘Enough of this. We could play such better baseball.’
“So that was kind of a turning point. Even though we lost that game, since then, just higher energy, just being in the moment, highly focused on execution. We just keep it rolling from there.”
The White Sox had the benefit of following that loss up with their three best starting pitchers, Giolito finishing off a trio of impressive starts with a 10-strikeout performance in Wednesday’s 4-3 win over the Cubs. Before him, Dylan Cease was sensational against the Angels and Michael Kopech showed, even in just four innings of work on that garbage weather night Tuesday, that he’s capable of being the contributor the team long thought he could be.
Not every start will look like that from the rest of the rotation, and there are some sizable question marks there. And not every game will come against a team like the Cubs, who look like the kind of roster in the early stages of a rebuilding effort. Let’s not pretend like the White Sox’ offense exploded on the North Side, either, with just seven runs in two games that featured, yes, home runs but also a good deal of small ball. And for every jaw-dropping Luis Robert catch that signals the defensive issues might be in the past, there’s the tough night Jake Burger had at third base on Tuesday, which included what seemed like an embarrassing – and fortunately not costly – slam into the side wall and tumble into the stands.
But the White Sox might be over the hurdle. Thanks, Cubs.
Back: Liam Hendriks
There shouldn’t have been much worry that a bumpy start to the season was going to spell doom for Hendriks, who has well proven himself as the best closer in baseball over the past couple seasons. But there were early season struggles, and Hendriks finished April with a 5.40 ERA and notable late-game losses in showdowns with division rivals Javy Báez and Byron Buxton.
But in May? Hendriks has been Hendriks, the dominant, unhittable Hendriks.
He proved himself worthy of lifting Mjolnir with three strikeouts in the ninth inning Sunday before retiring all six hitters he faced in a pair of saves against the Cubs. That’s three straight lockdowns in as many nights. The fact that it’s notable Hendriks pitched on three consecutive days says plenty about how baseball teams handle their most important arms. But as one Twitter follower pointed out:
Well said. And certainly Hendriks would agree.
Watching him mow down the Cubs on Wednesday, he looks very much back.
“1-2-3 (innings),” La Russa said. “We have a running joke about that. I think he sometimes gets two and then lets a guy get on base just to terrorize me, torture me. Not the last couple times.
“He’s making good pitches. That ninth inning, he got (the middle of the Cubs’ order). And he goes 1-2-3. A tremendous weapon for us.”
If you’ll remember, this is pretty much exactly what happened last season, when Hendriks finished April 2021 with a 4.35 ERA and had a couple messy outings to start his White Sox tenure. To say that he righted the ship would be an understatement, of course, as he made the All-Star team and was named the AL Reliever of the Year.
The same in 2022 would be no shock. He’s that good.
Back: Luis Robert
You’ve heard the saying about wanting to run through a brick wall? Well, Robert actually tried it Wednesday night.
Don’t worry, he’s OK after slamming into the center-field wall on a stellar catch to help save the game in the later innings. At Wrigley Field, especially in May, before the ivy has arrived, that’s no joke, and the walk back to the dugout with the trainer surely had plenty of folks wincing.
But Robert’s highlight-reel play had the opposite effect, not showing how injury-plagued the White Sox have been – and continue to be – but showing that their star center fielder is back from the groin injury that sidelined him for six games.
Robert can do it all, and getting him back from even a brief absence was a big deal for the White Sox in all aspects of the game. But his defense is unmatched in center field, and he showed it Wednesday. Not only did he make that great catch at the wall, but he raced in and made a sliding catch on a Nick Madrigal pop up in shallow center earlier in the game.
It was such an unexpected play that it was ruled a hit by the umpire, who didn’t see that Robert actually came up with the ball. No matter, Robert, from his butt, threw Madrigal out at second as the former Sock tried to stretch the pop up into a hustle double.
“I see the greatness of him as a defender,” La Russa said, asked what he saw on the play. “That play, coming in, there’s two guys converging, he’s the third guy, comes up with the ball.
“He’s got an extra special makeup. And he got two hits.”
Back: Matt Foster
Foster was an integral part of the bullpen during the pandemic-shortened 2020 season, but that relief-pitching volatility we always hear so much about struck in a bad way in 2021, Foster posting a 6.00 ERA and constantly on the shuttle between the major and minor leagues.
Well, somewhat out of nowhere – would Foster have even been on the Opening Day roster if not for injuries to Joe Kelly and Ryan Burr? – Foster is back. And he’s back in a big way. He’s allowed just one run in 11 innings of relief work so far this season, and now he’s pitching in high leverage situations, getting eighth-inning work in each of the two Cubs games.
Most impressive was his escape act Wednesday, stepping in after Aaron Bummer got into a runners-at-the-corners jam with nobody out in a one-run game. Bummer got one out before Foster came in to coax a pop out and a strikeout to end the threat and preserve the minimal lead.
“That escape in the eighth inning,” La Russa said, “I’ll remember that for a long time.”
Certainly the South Side skipper is hoping for more memorable moments from Foster, who went to work in the offseason and made some big improvements. It’s resulted in a Foster that looks way more like the 2020 edition and might be even better. If he can stay this good, he’ll be a permanent fixture of the White Sox’ late-inning group.
“I think I’ve made big strides since last year,” Foster said. “I had a very tough year last year, up and down. Good days, bad days, probably more bad than good. It was really for me more of getting my head to the right place and not worrying about other things than what I need to be doing. I think I came a long way from that.
“(Seeing positive results is) a major confidence boost. I try to take every opportunity to get out on the field that I can and not take it for granted. Just go out there and do the best that I can without letting outside things kind of interfere.”
Never left: Tim Anderson
Anderson got a ton of attention for a tidal wave of errors in the field during that losing stretch, but the truth is that Anderson’s bat has been just fine all season. He’d probably tell you his April wasn’t his finest work, but as of right now, he’s still hitting .313 with a slugging percentage that, if the season ended today, would be the second highest of his career.
That’s just who Anderson is, quietly a pillar of consistency, and any social-media gripes about him swinging at the first pitch all the time ignore that such an aggressive approach has made him the hitter he’s evolved into: one of the best in the game.
Anderson impressed Tuesday night, sending a solo homer to the opposite field in the middle of brutally cold, windy and rainy conditions on the North Side. That homer and the one before it, last Saturday against the Angels, both came on the first pitch.
“They are putting it in the strike zone for me,” Anderson said. “So why not?”
In the field, things have gone a little smoother of late, too. During that eight-game losing streak, Anderson committed seven errors. In the eight games since, he’s error-free – and the White Sox have five wins.
Back: Sorcery supreme
Cease can do some pretty impressive things on the mound, with stuff that’s been described as “nasty” for years.
But off the mound, his talents might just be supernatural.
An amazing prediction come true for Cease. And him and Giolito discussing an “ethereal body” only adds evidence that Cease might just be a master of the mystic arts.
Back soon: Yoán Moncada and Joe Kelly
Speaking of “back,” the White Sox are on the verge of getting two important pieces back from rehab assignments, with Moncada and Kelly expected to come off the injured list ahead of next week’s series against the Guardians.
Moncada will be a welcome sight to a lineup that, while the wins have returned, is still struggling to score runs. The White Sox have topped four runs just twice in their last 19 games, and while they’ve got the pitching to win without nightly offensive explosions, this lineup was built to be capable of nightly offensive explosions.
Moncada’s power was the subject of much discussion a year ago, and who knows if he’ll get back to the 25-homer days of 2019. But he will definitely bring a patient approach and on-base skills to the lineup, and he’s got the versatility to hit just about anywhere La Russa wants to put him. Despite the freakout over an apparent power outage, Moncada had a very effective season at the plate in 2021 and will be a boon to the lineup – not to mention the infield, where he plays some of the best defensive third base around.
Kelly, meanwhile, will only increase the strength of the back-end group in the bullpen, adding his World Series experience to what Hendriks, Kendall Graveman and Foster have delivered so far.
So much of the discussion during the season’s first month focused on the immense amount of injuries the White Sox had to weather. And while they woke up May 5 three and a half games back of the Twins, they’ve weathered them decently enough. Now, with reinforcements arriving, we could start to see the team everyone assumed would be the class of the division before the season began.
Of course, that doesn’t mean the injury bug has let go of the White Sox.
Andrew Vaughn went on the injured list Thursday after several days of waiting to see if his bruised hand would heal enough to play. After getting drilled with a 95 mile an hour pitch, he’s been unable to shake the pain and soreness when gripping a bat and swinging.
The White Sox were hoping he’d be good enough to go during the Cubs series, but when he wasn’t, he’d been sidelined long enough – and not improving fast enough – to make a trip to the IL, where he can focus on healing up all the way.
“It’s kind of progressed, but it’s still aching when I swing, real bad,” Vaughn said Wednesday. “Like it’s kind of blocking me from swinging because of the pain. … I feel it all the time. It’s not a good place to get hit. I mean, a lot of people get hit there and it breaks. I got pretty lucky that it didn’t break, but there’s still a lot of inflammation in there.
“I’m not much of a doctor, but it’s painful.”
Back: Starting-pitching questions
Things are starting to get interesting in the rotation, where there could soon be an odd man out.
Though Johnny Cueto was initially signed to a minor league deal as little more than depth, he’s been discussed lately as a much needed addition to the starting staff.
“Based on how he’s pitched, we’re looking for his help sooner than later,” La Russa said. “He’s been impressive so far, and he can help us.”
Those comments came before Cueto’s outing Wednesday night, when he was tagged for four runs in 3.2 innings. Overall, Cueto’s got a 6.10 ERA in three appearances for Triple-A Charlotte, which doesn’t sound great. But given the results from Dallas Keuchel and Vince Velasquez (prior to Velaasquez’s excellent outing last weekend) and Lance Lynn’s ongoing injury recovery, the White Sox might give Cueto a big league shot, to quote the manager, sooner rather than later.
That could place some emphasis on what Velasquez and Keuchel are able to do this weekend in Boston. Or, the White Sox could simply move Velasquez into the swingman role he was expected to play when he signed, opening up a rotation spot for Cueto. Then, with another month’s worth of data to consider, they can make the best decision on which pitcher stays in the rotation once Lynn returns at the end of the month.
But while Giolito, Cease and Kopech have established themselves as a strong 1-2-3, there are still some big questions behind them, with the future results of Velasquez, Keuchel and Cueto all mysterious.
Back: Pieces of metal
The most important piece of metal known to May baseball in Chicago.
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