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How to feel about White Sox’ chase for Central crown after up-and-down weekend in Detroit

Vinnie Duber Avatar
September 18, 2022

The White Sox left Cleveland riding high.

Elvis Andrus said, after a loss to the Rockies last week, that he and his teammates had a chance to make a statement playing a make-up game against the first-place Guardians last Thursday. That’s what they did, grabbing an impressive 8-2 win.

Andrus said in that same sentence about making a statement in Cleveland that the next step was winning the ensuing three-game series in Detroit. And that’s what the White Sox did, taking Games 2 and 3 against the last-place Tigers after dropping the first in extra innings Friday night.

And yet? It doesn’t seem like they’re riding all that high.

The White Sox did what they set out to do, winning in Cleveland and winning twice in Detroit. They’re 13-6 since Tony La Russa left the dugout due to medical reasons and Miguel Cairo injected some energy by taking over as acting manager. They haven’t lost a series while Cairo’s been at the helm. And they’ve gotten closer to the Guardians after falling six games back in the AL Central standings with a loss to the Royals the night La Russa’s absence began.

But they haven’t gotten close enough. And that’s making the thought of catching the Guardians, seemingly so realistic after that win in Cleveland, a little harder to visualize in the waning days of the regular season.

The Guardians lost to the White Sox last Thursday, but they rattled off three wins in the two days following, showing their resiliency and their ability to continue to stomp the Twins, who have fallen so far behind that this is just a two-team race now. The White Sox were three games out Friday morning but woke up Sunday staring at a four-and-a-half-game deficit, and the task ahead when it comes to catching and passing the Guardians for a second straight division title? It looked rather difficult:

That’s right, the Guardians could cool off, play only one game better than .500 the rest of the way, and the White Sox would be allowed just two losses over their final 16 games.

One of those 16 came off the board Sunday, a win in which the White Sox did that thing they’ve been doing all season long: leaving the door open for a last-minute surge. Otherwise known as providing hope.

Finally realizing their potential at the 11th hour when Cairo took the reins, the White Sox have still maddeningly slipped into the habits that drove fans nuts for five months of disappointing baseball. In the first two games of this series in Detroit, they mustered only 11 hits in 21 innings, getting bad extra-inning luck Friday before getting good extra-inning luck Saturday. But an offense that’s supposedly awoken from a summer-long slumber looked all too sleepy those days, the same kind of thing that happened Wednesday in the finale of a quick two-game set against the Rockies.

Then, boom. Sunday, it was back at it on the home-run front, the White Sox belting three long balls against Tigers pitching, including an Andrew Vaughn grand slam and a two-run bomb off Eloy Jiménez’s bat. An 11-run outburst after meager offensive showings each of the prior two nights did that thing, the White Sox showing how capable they still are of making the requisite noise to win the division.

But math being math, when do the odds become too great to overcome? Have they already?

Obviously, the state of the White Sox’ climb right now has a lot to do with the Guardians, who had lost just twice in their previous 13 games going into Sunday. A three-game deficit seemed manageable enough, but there wasn’t any room for error when the Guardians tapped into a late-season reservoir of late-game magic, winning Friday when a runner scored from second on a passed ball and winning a 15-inning marathon Saturday night after giving up five runs in the eighth inning. The Guardians have the shine of a playoff team right now, even if the Central has been the worst division in baseball this season.

The Guardians lost to the Twins on Sunday, shaving the White Sox’ gap to three and a half games. It could grow as small as three – right where it was when they left Cleveland – should Minnesota win the finale of that five-game series Monday.

The White Sox, however disappointing, will have one last crack at closing that gap next week when the Guardians come to the South Side for three games. They’ll need a sweep to capture the tiebreaker, all important now that Game 163 is a thing of the past.

But there’s more than just math standing in the White Sox’ way.

Michael Kopech hit the injured list Saturday and might not pitch again this season. Reporters in Detroit relayed Rick Hahn’s update, that Kopech is not dealing with anything super severe. But at the end of his first full season as a big league starter, shoulder inflammation was enough to remove him from the equation, perhaps, the rest of the way.

The White Sox planned to be creative with Kopech’s usage this season to keep him strong enough to pitch in the campaign’s most meaningful moments in September and, they hoped, into October. But even with the “blessing in disguise,” as pitching coach Ethan Katz recently called it, of a recent injured-list trip that bought Kopech some late-season rest, that goal was not achieved. And now, much like was the case with Carlos Rodón late last year, the White Sox are left to plug a sizable hole in their rotation, this time with ground to make up and every game a must-win.

But Cairo, Katz & Co. are stuck juggling more than just a rotation without Kopech, as Johnny Cueto’s bout of illness kept him from making a scheduled start in Detroit and has left the team’s pitching plan up in the air heading into the crucial three games against Cleveland. Because this is baseball, of course it was the games started in emergency fashion by Davis Martin and Vince Velasquez that the White Sox won in Michigan. Go figure.

While the White Sox are as far north of .500 as they’ve been all season, Sunday’s win matching a 2022-best by sending them to five games over, the story seems to be the same as it’s been from the jump: Which White Sox team is going to show up? Have they figured things out in time to avoid disaster, or is this all just too little too late?

Still, shockingly, the White Sox’ fate is in front of them, which makes the coming series against the Guardians so epic. Late-season drama is all any fan could ask for, even if it means sitting through five months of disappointment to get there. But while math never truly ruled the White Sox out during their slog through the summer, it now might be standing against them, and wouldn’t that be the biggest disappointment of all, where one misstep against the only team they need to beat could snuff out the White Sox’ title hopes?

We’ll see, though, if one misstep is all that happens. The White Sox have been woeful at home, still under .500 at Guaranteed Rate Field, and their power numbers have been particularly bad in their own ballpark. They’re exactly .500 in the games they’ve played against the Guardians at home this season.

And remember those numbers further above, too: One loss in three games against the Guardians could be one of the precious few these White Sox have to spare, tiebreaker or no tiebreaker, if they’re going to win this thing.

A baseball season is watching sand slowly move through an hourglass, and though the White Sox always had time, thanks to the Guardians and Twins refusing to play at a much higher caliber, it seems, perhaps, that they don’t have enough of it now that they’ve finally started winning at a decent clip. They’ve lost no series under Cairo’s stewardship, and they didn’t lose a series this weekend in Detroit. Though it’s difficult to find a ton of realistic optimism at this stage in the game – even after the last head-to-head meeting with the Guardians went as well as it did for them.

Indeed, though, the White Sox do have a chance. They could be as close as three games when the Guardians arrive Tuesday. Three wins, then, and they’d be tied for the division lead with a dozen games left on the schedule.

The White Sox might have the odds stacked against them at this moment. But they’ve given fans one thing here in late September: a reason to watch. There’s no doubt that exists, and in a big way, after this weekend in Detroit.

Stay tuned.

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