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‘One game at a time’ is sports’ biggest cliche, but White Sox see it as only hope to save season

Vinnie Duber Avatar
May 15, 2023

“We just have to take things one game at a time.”


Usually, when an athlete slips into that line of conversation, it’s time to think about what your next question might be. Not that us reporter types stop paying attention to our interview subjects, but it’s not like we’re going to use that “one game at time” business in our writeups, right? Surely our readers want something a tad meatier.

But the White Sox are a quarter of the way through their 2023 campaign, and so far, all they’ve managed to do is compound the disappointment of 2022 into something much worse.

If you were left wondering how on Earth this collection of players could have possibly gone from preseason World Series pick to a .500 team, you’ll have to install some padding to cushion your dropped jaw when realizing this collection of players has an appalling 14-28 record as they catch their breaths on May 15.

Yes, two weeks out from that imaginary judgment point of Memorial Day, the White Sox are, quite simply, one of baseball’s worst teams. Only the division-rival Royals and outrageously terrible A’s are worse, record-wise. Only those “special bad” A’s have a worse run differential than the White Sox’ minus-71 mark — and it’s more than twice as bad! Minus-157, you gotta be bleepin’ me!

But there’s practically no one that will say, “Hey, it could be worse, we could be the A’s” on the South Side, because this type of outcome for the White Sox was nearly unthinkable. Even the most pessimistic fan couldn’t have predicted this.

If you’ve already resigned yourself to a summer of disappointment and started pondering who could be packing their bags come the trade deadline, though, you’ll find no such talk, at least publicly, in the home clubhouse at 35th and Shields.

Pedro Grifol’s talk of believing in a turnaround has diminished in volume, if not faith, over the last couple weeks. But baseball’s ultimate undertaker, math, has not yet sentenced the White Sox to a season of playing out the string quite yet, even if they’re on pace for just the fifth triple-digit-loss season in the franchise’s 123-year history.

So in place of assuring a turnaround is coming, Grifol and his players have segued to a new talking point: A turnaround is mandatory.

“I think we all need to get a little bit of confidence back, play the game we know we are good at,” Michael Kopech said Friday. “We start pressing and trying to do too much, that’s not us. We don’t stay within ourselves, it kind of makes the momentum sway, and you want to be able to ride the momentum.

“Right now, everybody wants to win. That goes without saying. We are not doing it.”

True enough. But how can the White Sox turn this ship around?

There hasn’t been much positivity through the first month and a half of the season. Optimists can look to Luis Robert Jr.’s status as one of the game’s hottest hitters; he’s batting .422 with a 1.443 OPS in May and ranks fourth in the game with 11 home runs. Lucas Giolito isn’t all the way back to All-Star status yet, but he’s been the team’s best starting pitcher, seemingly successful in rediscovering himself after a down year in 2022. Jake Burger has been a pleasant surprise, second on the team in home runs, including the one he hit in his first game back from the IL on Sunday.

But there are those scary two letters for the White Sox, IL, and far too many of their everyday guys remain on the shelf with one injury or another. Elvis Andrus was the latest arrival, an oblique strain keeping him out for an undetermined amount of time. He joined Eloy Jiménez, whose unbelievable streak of bad luck now includes an appendectomy that he’ll spend the next month recovering from. Liam Hendriks and Garrett Crochet should be nearing the end of their rehab stints, set to join a bullpen with the sport’s second-highest ERA.

While injuries remain an unavoidable headline for the White Sox and a reasonable explainer for their lack of success, they’re far from a lone factor. As mentioned, the bullpen’s ERA is just a shade under 6.00. Every starting pitcher aside from Giolito has an ERA of 4.79 or higher, including Lance Lynn’s worst-in-baseball 7.51 mark. Burger might be a positive surprise, but the White Sox’ two offseason additions to its group of everyday position players, Andrew Benintendi and Oscar Colás, have been unexpectedly disappointing, Benintendi with an OPS-plus of 85 and Colás demoted to the minor leagues after one month of offensive struggles.

So how in the world does this get fixed?

The easy answer is to say it might not get fixed at all, that this season is beyond saving. But with a gap between them and the first-place Twins of “only” nine and a half games, is it?

Again, I’ll bring up that pesky fella, math.

We’ve talked the obvious solutions to death. The whole, uh, play better thing. Every time Lynn pitches, he provides that roadmap to success, and boy, he’s not wrong. Benintendi and Tim Anderson are struggling veterans who have had tons of success at this level before. They know what they need to do. Same with Lynn, not to mention the bulk of the bullpen. Health would certainly help, as well, and Yoán Moncada’s recent return after missing several weeks was a much needed boost for the lineup.

But what about the mindset in the clubhouse? In the final days of last season, when a playoff spot was no longer in the cards, the White Sox diagnosed themselves with, in addition to an avalanche of injuries — the team’s five-man core of Anderson, Moncada, Robert, Jiménez and Yasmani Grandal played all of two games together — a case of their confidence having morphed into cockiness. They slept walk through the season believing the 93-win, division-championship success of 2021 would magically repeat. It obviously did not.

Grifol seemed to impart a refreshing approach during the spring, a hyper focus on a limited period of time. Don’t think about winning the World Series, think about winning the day, or the next five days, at the most. It was well received. Giolito, among others, praised that approach as being particularly helpful, a familiar idea that had produced past success.

There’s been no suggestion that approach was abandoned once the losses started piling up in a hurry as the games started counting. In fact, that’s what the players are once again voicing as they stare up at the enormity of the challenge in front of them: escaping the hole they dug themselves.

“Take it one game at a time, one series at a time,” Giolito said Sunday. “We move on and go win the next series.”

“It’s not a secret that we haven’t been playing at the level that we all know we can do it, for many reasons,” Moncada said Friday through team interpreter Billy Russo. “One of those factors is injuries, but it’s not an excuse. I think everybody wants to do their best. I think we are all going to come together and start playing better. It’s something we have to do on a daily basis, just go out there and do our best. There’s plenty of season to play, and hopefully we’re going to be able to turn this around.”

“We’re just obviously going to keep working hard,” Burger said Sunday. “I feel like we keep beating on the same drum, but we have the talent in here. It’s just putting it together and getting results on the field now. … Everybody looks great. It’s just we’ve got to start getting results.”

As for Grifol, he’s made it known that he hasn’t been happy with what he’s seen. The guy who promised a fundamentally sound club and one that would be ready to play on a nightly basis — the kind of stuff fans were begging for after making their own diagnoses of lifelessness throughout last season — has decried a lack of urgency at times, including last week after dropping three of four in his old stomping grounds of Kansas City. A team meeting followed Friday. Asked why it was necessary, the first-year South Side skipper showed his frustration: “Maybe we’re 13-26. Maybe that’s the reason.”

But the manager, too, has stuck to his springtime script of focusing on the immediate future over anything with a longer term. He even went as far to say that he never looks at the standings, which ironically are his team’s one saving grace this season; they’d likely be well cooked by now if they played in a different, more challenging division.

“You’re probably not going to believe this when I say this, but I don’t really look at the division that much,” Grifol said Saturday. “This is the team that I’m concerned with. We’ve got to fix our own troubles, we’ve got to improve in a lot of areas. Other teams can’t win the division for us. We have to go take it. We have to improve and win the division ourselves.

“I wouldn’t know where we’re at right now, and I wouldn’t know how many games back we are at all. I know where our team is, and I know the areas of improvement and how we can possibly compete for a division. But I don’t focus too much on other ball clubs in our division, unless we’re playing them.”

This “one day a time” stuff is generally uninteresting, and you could argue it is in the case of the White Sox, too. But it’s where this team’s head seems to be at, and that might be a good thing. Because the task at hand is too big to fathom, really. This team has the game’s third-worst record, and there’s a ton of baseball left.

To prevent this from being a summer of going through the motions — not because anyone’s given up, per se, but rather because math has finally lowered the guillotine — the White Sox would be best off not thinking about such things.

Of course, “one game at a time” only becomes an effective way of thinking if the wins start coming. Back-to-back series wins over the Twins and Reds proved to be little more than a mirage as the White Sox followed it up with two wins in their next seven games against the Royals and Astros.

And so we circle back to the ultimate fix: playing better,

In the end, the only thing that will save the season is, you know, winning some games. So far, that’s proven mighty difficult for the White Sox. It’s going to have to start happening with more frequency. Now.

Otherwise, the thought process will be forced into a much larger time frame: What to do this offseason? And what to do with the direction of this franchise?

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