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The White Sox got what they wanted. They flew to California a joyous, victorious bunch.
“There’s a lot of happy guys in that clubhouse,” Tony La Russa said after the 4-3 win. “You’ve got to start somewhere. Hard to win when you’ve been losing, man. Hard. … Had to start somewhere and started today.”
It’s possible that, as the players so often avow, all it takes is one, that this one “W” was good for what ailed them.
But one win out of four games against the last-place Orioles couldn’t cover up what was a disappointing weekend on the South Side, a quartet of contests that perfectly encapsulated the sort of disappointment that has reigned through the first three months of what was supposed to be a championship-caliber season.
The Orioles might be better than their astronomical 19.5-game deficit in the ferocious AL East indicates. But this is still a last-place club that entered the season with last-place expectations. The White Sox, meanwhile, wanted to be baseball’s best, wanted to hoist a trophy at the end of October.
Their lineup was supposed to bash opposing pitchers and yet mustered only three runs in the series’ first three games, shut out for only the second time this season in Thursday’s opener and managing just one hit a day later.
The rotation was supposed to be among the AL’s best after topping the Junior Circuit during the 2021 regular season, but Michael Kopech’s decent enough outing Friday was marred by a hit batter and a balked-in run, while Lance Lynn stumbled at the very end of his outing Saturday and owns an ERA north of 6.00 through his first three starts this season.
José Abreu’s back-to-back errors to open the ninth inning Sunday made for a far more nerve-wracking outing than was expected for Kendall Graveman, on ninth-inning duty while Liam Hendriks remains sidelined with an arm injury.
This is all without mentioning what went very, very right, of course. Dylan Cease was phenomenal Sunday, setting a new career best with his 13 strikeouts and looking like the kind of guy who could compete for a Cy Young Award and earn Game 1 starting nods in the postseason. He woke up Monday second in the AL in strikeouts, his 121 whiffs just behind the 123 of Rays ace Shane McClanahan.
It was an electric effort – and an essential one.
“It feels great,” Cease said of his heroics. “I want to be that guy that the team can rely on. To go out and give seven (innings) like that is definitely a positive.”
Positive, indeed. But while Cease was invaluable in playing stopper for a White Sox team on a four-game skid, he won’t be able to drag this team out of the hole it dug for itself all by his lonesome.
The White Sox have yet to click in any true fashion. Though the lineup has accounted for much of the consternation, even spurts of offensive success have been accompanied by downturns in the pitching staff. There seemed to be a long-awaited offensive awakening earlier this month, with higher outputs materializing during series against Texas, Detroit, Houston and even early last week against Toronto. But the Orioles’ arrival on the South Side saw another drought, and the White Sox were outscored 17-7 in the series, as the visitors used pitching, speed, defense and timely hitting to outplay the home team.
After all that excitement over the White Sox’ bats heating up with the weather, they headed out on their California road trip with a ghastly minus-51 run differential.
Even still, the White Sox are not in the unfortunate position the Orioles are, not members of a division of super teams that are running away with spots in the postseason before the All-Star break. In the AL East, the second-place Red Sox – 11 games over .500 – are 11 games back of the first-place Yankees, and there’s a tie for third between the Rays and Blue Jays, both 12.5 games out of the top spot.
Not so in the much weaker AL Central, where the White Sox and their sub-.500 record are just 5.5 games back of the first-place Twins and only 3.5 games back of the second-place Guardians.
But that’s one of the few silver linings the White Sox can cling to at the moment, and their trek out of baseball purgatory more resembles walking in circles.
The answer? The mindset? Don’t think about those big preseason expectations. Don’t think about where you want to be at the end of October, or at the end of September, or at the end of July. Think about where you want to be at the end of the day: one game better than you started it.
That’s the message from the Hall of Famer, at least.
“When you talk to everybody personally, it’s, ‘Do your job and win this game,’” La Russa said before Sunday’s win. “You can always take care of the micro. If you keep thinking big picture, you let games slip away or you ignore the importance of a mistake here and a mistake there.
“If you get to August in contention, that’s more exciting than anything, that’s the best two months. But you’ve always got to take care of the series you’re playing.”
Whether or not that will end up working remains to be seen. For all the focus and positive attitude the White Sox boast – their clubhouse culture has remained plenty strong in the face of countless injuries and a disappointing record – it doesn’t mean a guaranteed translation into wins. And wins right now are the only thing that will save this season.
“That win needed to happen,” Graveman said. “Every win is important. This is the big leagues. Wins are difficult to come by, and each team is good. This is the highest level of baseball. Any time you get a win against any worthy opponent we are playing.
“That to me is the most important thing, just win.”
Health should begin to return, with Yoán Moncada expected back Tuesday in Anaheim and Eloy Jiménez several games into his latest rehab assignment down at Triple-A Charlotte. Hendriks and Yasmani Grandal are daily features doing pregame work to get off the injured list.
But as they just found out with Danny Mendick’s season-ending ACL tear and the Adam Engel hamstring strain that happened in the same game, one step forward on the injury front is often accompanied by another step back for these White Sox.
La Russa managed the White Sox to a runaway division title despite significant injuries in 2021. So far in 2022, he has not found it as easy, not gotten the necessary contributions from either his stars or his fill-ins to keep his team afloat. And he’s taking the heat for it, getting peppered with “Fire Tony!” chants at Guaranteed Rate Field in addition to an unending stream of social-media complaints he’s surely not seeing.
Always describing himself as accountable for anything that goes wrong with this club, he put it into no uncertain terms after the White Sox were one-hit by the Orioles’ bullpen Friday.
“We’re better than that. We have to figure out why that’s true,” the manager said that night. “In this league, you either do or you don’t, and when you don’t, whether you’re players or the manager, you just take the heat. Fans didn’t come out to watch us get beat that easily. I take the heat for not getting us ready to play. I don’t know what else to say.”
La Russa was referencing a specifically sour night at the yard Friday.
But it could apply to much of this season to date.
Cease looked great this weekend. The White Sox? Well …
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