For the past four days, the White Sox have looked more like the team that was expected going into the season. For the past two games, they have looked like a team that could still, despite all that has gone wrong this season, win their division.
Friday night, they beat the Twins in a 4-3 walkoff. Saturday, Dylan Cease missed throwing the 21st no-hitter in White Sox history by one out. Luiz Arraez lined a 1-1 slider for a single up the middle with two outs in the ninth; until then, Cease had fully stymied Minnesota batters. They managed two baserunners – Jake Cave walked in the third and Gilberto Celestino in the seventh – and only three times did they have an exit velocity on a ball in play over 100 miles per hour.
“It would have meant a lot,” Cease said. “It’s an incredibly difficult feat to achieve. It definitely would have meant a lot.”
Still, Cease threw his first complete game shutout, needing 103 pitches to get through all nine innings. He didn’t record a strikeout until the fifth inning but fanned seven Twins batters in the last four frames.
“I think after the fifth I kind of felt I didn’t have my sharpest stuff early,” Cease said. “And then once I got to the fifth, I started to have a better feel and then I really emptied the tank.”
Cease’s performance Saturday was another line on his Cy Young candidacy this year. He is 13-6 with a 2.13 ERA, and his 197 strikeouts are third-highest in baseball. Cease was a true All-Star snub, but he’s making it hard to keep ignoring what he is doing on the mound
“I was shocked first that he didn’t make the All-Star game, and he should be talked about,” interim manager Miguel Cairo said. “He’s been very consistent all year round. He goes out there and throws six, seven innings every time. He’s been outstanding.”
As if what Cease did wasn’t enough, the offense put up 13 runs. Six of those may have come against position player reliever Nick Gordon in the eighth, but the Sox had a comfortable 7-0 lead after four innings. They struck early; Elvis Andrus, Andrew Vaughn, and José Abreu connected for consecutive singles and the game’s first run, and then Eloy Jiménez hit a three-run homer.
In the fourth inning, Romy Gonzalez hit his first career home run, also a three-run shot, to put the Sox up by seven.
The last four days – the last two, especially – have felt in contrast with how the Sox have played most of this season. The team has been perpetually right around third place, but never more than a few games behind either the Twins or Guardians. For as low as things have gotten at different times in the season, the Sox have always managed to stay within striking distance.
But now time is getting really short, and they are hoping the spark from a four-game winning streak is enough to ignite a team that has been playing .500 baseball all year.
“Everything runs on a timeline in this sport, and that timeline with the regular season ending is what we’re running up against,” Kendall Graveman told CHGO. “Not that these games mean more, but you’re closer to either playing in the playoffs or going home.”
Friday and Saturday night’s wins both felt like they contained moments that could be momentum-shifters. But the Sox have teased this kind of thing at other times this season. Most recently, when they won five games in a row, including sweeping the Tigers and winning the first two games of a four-game set against the Astros. At the end of that streak, the Sox were 61-56, the highest number of games above .500 they have been all season.
But instead of keeping the positive momentum going, they lost the next two games in Houston, including a 21-5 drubbing on August 18. They won only two games from August 17 to the 30th and got swept at home by the Diamondbacks along the way. Medical issues forced manager Tony La Russa to step away from the team indefinitely on August 31, meaning interim manager Cairo might be presiding over the season’s turning point if his team can keep up with the kind of fire they have shown for the past four games.
“Maybe they realize they’ve got to push the gas,” Cairo said of his team’s recent play. “And they’re pushing the gas right now.
“We’ve been through so much, injuries, all the stuff that’s happening, pitchers, position players and sometimes it’s like you kind of like overwhelm you. I think they just put that behind and they want to finish strong.”
The fight the team showed Friday night, in some instances almost literal fight, like when Lance Lynn lead the team in charging the mound after Twins closer Jorge López threw a 97-mile-per-hour pitch up and in that hit Andrew Vaughn in the shoulder. From the outside, the vibe has looked different these past four days. The elephant in the room – La Russa’s absence – can’t be ignored. The players have spoken highly of him throughout the season, but the tone in the Sox clubhouse has been different, especially after Friday’s win.
“We’ve definitely turned the page for the better, and we know what we’ve got to do,” Yasmani Grandal said.
Cease: “I think we know it’s crunch time right now. It’s time to bring out the focus and as much intensity as we can. We’ve definitely been locked in.”
Gonzalez: “It’s been a total shift in energy. We’re coming in here and we’re excited. We’re excited to get out there and play and compete.”
The Sox have a September schedule that can play into their favor if they capitalize on matchups against Cleveland and Minnesota. They play the Guardians four more times, and there are six more games against the Twins after this weekend’s series is over. Pushing the gas and wanting to finish strong might be the goal, but it will be most important in those games.
“You can get lulled to sleep a little bit in the middle of the season, everyone can,” Graveman told CHGO. “But these games matter just as much as the first game we played this season, as far as what they cost. That doesn’t change and that mindset definitely can’t change, but I think the energy in the building creates a little more urgency.”
Playing above .500 over the next four weeks will require more physically from players. Even the ones not on the injured list are banged up by this time of year, but the last stretch of the season can be unrelenting.
“There have been a lot of ups and downs, and we’re at the point where there’s something like 30 games left,” Andrew Vaughn told CHGO. “You make that final push. Everybody’s got that energy, you might have 80 percent, but you can give 180, 70 you give 170.”
The American League Central is not a particularly strong division, even at 66-66 the Sox are only three games out of first place. And once a team gets to the postseason, those wins and losses no longer count.
“This game is funny man, it’s a unique game. If you get in, everybody’s starting out with the same record. You still gotta win baseball games,” Graveman told CHGO.
He recalls getting traded to the Athletics in November 2014, a few months after they were one of the best first-half teams in baseball, only to have to fight for a wild card spot and then eventually lose the AL wild card game to the Royals.
“It’s crazy what happens in this game. That’s why it’s such a unique sport,” Graveman said. “It’s 162 games. I love the length of it because it really challenges players mentally and physically, but it gives you opportunities to go through ups and downs through a season and then try and right the ship at the end.”
Ideally, the Sox would not have to be righting the ship in September. But if they are going to after months of struggles and frustration, the last four games might have been the start. After beating the Twins Saturday, and the Guardians losing to Seattle, the Sox are just two games out of first place.
“Hopefully we’ve been kicked in the mouth enough this year to realize there’s still some games to be played and some time to play them, and at the end, we’ll reflect,” Graveman told CHGO. “We’ll reflect at the end of the year, that true reflection of how the season went, and until then we’ll just keep playing baseball.”
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