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One of Eloy Jiménez’s favorite responses to media questioning is to stare long at a reporter and retort to what he thinks is an obvious query with: “What do you think?”
It’s funny. It’s confident. It’s Eloy.
So I’ll pull an Eloy on this one:
Do you think the White Sox are excited to get Jiménez’s thunderous bat back into the middle of their home-run-starved lineup?
Imagine me staring back at you and saying, “What do you think?”
Jiménez delivered a script-worthy performance in his first game back from a months-long stay on the injured list Wednesday, hitting a game-tying two-run homer and delivering another clutch RBI in a crazy, fun, walk-off win for the White Sox, who slayed the division-leading Twins for the first time this season in a 9-8 extra-inning victory.
“It was good,” Jiménez said after the game. “It was one of the days you feel like, ‘Yeah, I’m back.’”
The White Sox, of course, have been one of baseball’s least powerful teams this season, ranking in the bottom four in the league in home runs coming into Wednesday’s game. They badly needed a power boost, and it was perhaps no coincidence that they got one, team-wide, in Jiménez’s return.
They hit three homers in all, all of the two-run, game-tying variety, with Luis Robert and Andrew Vaughn joining in what was a total of five comebacks in a nutty game. Eventually, it was Leury García who ended it with a chopper through a drawn-in infield to win it in the 10th. But the list of contributors was a mile long in this one, an example of what this offense was supposed to be able to do in 2022.
“You know, every day is going to be different. This is baseball,” Jiménez said. “Sometimes you are going to score a lot of runs, and sometimes you don’t. But this is a team, we can do what we did today.
“Everybody knows that we had that team that can score runs. And to see that today, it was good.”
Multiple times this week, Tony La Russa has downplayed the need to focus on home runs, despite his team’s surprisingly low total on the other side of Independence Day. As he explains it, home runs are a product of hard contact, a product of doing everything right at the plate. That’s in line with what hitting coach Frank Menechino has said, too, with his oft-quoted “fuck the home run” line rarely accompanied by this context: that the idea is to not try to hit home runs but to get hits and the appropriate number of home runs will follow as a result of good at-bats.
“I don’t like talking about home runs,” La Russa said after Tuesday’s game, “because you get that in their minds and we’ll do less, not more. We just want to be good hitters. … When we center the ball more consistently, we’ll get the production we need, whether it’s home runs or runs scored or whatever.”
Whether you agree with it or not, there’s been a short supply of all of it, with the White Sox’ bats mostly dormant through the season’s first three months, hence a woeful run differential and a third-place standing in the AL Central. The offense has not produced, but the lineup has rarely, if ever, been whole, with injuries knocking out the guys who were supposed to rake for long stretches.
Jiménez hadn’t played in a big league contest since he collapsed running to first base in late April against this same Twins team. Yasmani Grandal is still on the mend from a back injury and hopes to return for the start of the second half. Tim Anderson has spent time on the IL. So has AJ Pollock. So has Adam Engel. So has Vaughn. And Yoán Moncada has been bothered by one thing or another since Opening Day, again part of the injury report Wednesday, when he had to exit after fouling a ball off his foot.
And so the most noteworthy part of Jiménez’s return for these White Sox is that the lineup is one step closer to being the unit that was expected before the season started. It was supposed to be a potent one that had opposing pitchers shaking in their cleats. It hasn’t been that. But maybe it can be. Team-wide confidence that a turnaround is approaching has been met with skepticism from fans who have watched three months of offensive hibernation. But a day like Wednesday could be the moment that turns those skeptics into believers.
“Hopefully it’s huge,” Lance Lynn said. “For the offense to keep doing their thing and scoring some runs there and tie it up with some big hits, it was a good win. Those guys have been doing everything they can and trying their butt off. And hopefully today that’s something that sparks them.
“We get Eloy back in the lineup, and things like that, big things, can happen. Hopefully that’s the start of those guys getting comfortable and doing their thing.”
Jiménez, though, is not just a stat line, not just an impressive source of home-run power. He’s a smile, a presence, a jokester and a personality. And for many fans, they’ve failed to observe that kind of thing from these White Sox this season. The on-field results will do that, as there’s not a lot of yucking it up to be done when the losses come with such unexpected frequency.
That’s led fans watching from afar to question the team’s drive, heart, will to win.
La Russa suggests a closer look would be helpful in dispelling those questions and that everything great about this group’s intangibles was on display as the White Sox mustered one comeback after another against the Twins.
“It was inspirational to watch the guys refuse to quit,” La Russa said. “It was so much fun to be in there (in the dugout), listening to the talk about, ‘Hey, we can do this.’ It was inspirational.
“Have a mic down there for the fans, so they get a chance to see it. Let them know it happens, those guys down there talking it up and trying to make it happen.”
While the clubhouse culture that’s been such a strength for this rebuilt roster has remained plenty intact – with La Russa complimenting his players’ daily attitude and approach, their minds and their guts, on a regular basis – certain guys, like Anderson and Josh Harrison, have said the team could be having more fun, could be getting back to showing its typical buoyancy.
Mr. “HI MOM!” is here, and even a day before he was activated, his mere presence in the clubhouse cranked up the volume as he laughed with teammates before Tuesday’s loss. He was back doing his goofy schtick during his postgame media session Wednesday, and with a nine spot on the scoreboard, all felt like it was supposed to for these White Sox.
“That smile lights everything up,” La Russa said. “It was great to get him back. But when he’s productive like that, that’s exactly what we need, that thump in the middle to produce runs. That’s what inspires us.”
It’s not to say Jiménez will be a one-man savior for a team that’s had a lot of problems through a sub-.500 first three months of baseball. He can’t raise Moncada’s average above .200, or lower Joe Kelly’s ERA below 9.00. He can’t bring Grandal and Aaron Bummer off the IL, or bring an end to a string of base-running blunders that had La Russa calling his team’s fundamentals a “work in progress” Tuesday.
But for so long – since before the season began, really, with the springtime injury to Lynn – this team has been waiting for a return to health, to get all its pieces back in place. Jiménez is a big piece, someone who can do so much. His return is a big deal, and he showed why in just one day.
Of course, it’s easy to remember back just a year, when another lengthy Jiménez absence ended with a bang and he hit that game-winning homer to beat the Royals in just his second game off the IL. After a red-hot August, he struggled in September and was part of the White Sox’ power outage in their swift playoff exit.
The hope is that things will be different this year. Obviously, the White Sox would take a scorching month at the plate from Jiménez. They’d prefer three or four.
It’s a nice reminder of the challenge that faces this team, that there’s a big hole to dig out of. Wednesday’s win was a big one, given they’d yet to beat the division-leading Twins this year. But it only made them 1-5 against their rivals. The second-place Guardians were swept by the Tigers, who come to the South Side starting Thursday, but there are still two teams for the White Sox to jump.
Can they do it? Sure. Will they? That remains to be seen. And it’s why even a big win like Wednesday’s can’t be pegged as a turning point until we see what comes next. We’ve asked that “turning point” question too many times already this season to know better.
But what is certain is they can’t do it without Jiménez.
A team desperate for power has its most powerful bat back. A team needing to have a little more fun has its biggest goofball back. And having him back gives a big boost to their comeback effort.
It did Wednesday, several times over. Now it needs to happen for the season as a whole.
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