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Late April games don’t usually feel like they carry a lot of significance, but against the Royals Tuesday night, both Dallas Keuchel and his team as a whole felt like they were sitting at a pivotal moment.
Keuchel, making his third start of the season, was in need of a solid outing to help wash away doubts about whether he still belongs in the White Sox rotation. The Sox, back at home after a disastrous 0-6 road trip that extended their losing streak to seven games, were in need of a win, however it came.
The bad news is that the losing streak was extended to eight games. The wobbly defense that contributed to losses during last week’s road trip continued. On what should have been a routine out to lead off the fourth inning, José Abreu dropped the throw from Tim Anderson. That was the first domino that fell on the way to a 6-0 loss to the Royals.
“You’ve got to hang in,” manager Tony La Russa said after the game. “There were a couple misplays here and there. Then we made a couple of great plays later to show we’re still playing. It shows you what we’re capable of. The biggest problem was not throwing the ball over the plate.”
If there was good news Tuesday, it was that Keuchel pitched decently. He worked around a leadoff error and a pair of well-placed infield singles in the fourth inning to limit the damage to two unearned runs. Keuchel left the game in the fifth after surrendering a leadoff single to Andrew Benintendi. He only struck out two, but Keuchel’s 33 percent whiff rate Tuesday was his highest in a Sox uniform. There were still issues, however. Keuchel walked five Royals in four innings.
“I’d like to have a little bit better efficiency,” Keuchel said. “I was feeling pretty good. I mean, outside of a few pitches that were not competitive.”
The Sox bullpen had issues with missing the zone that caused more damage than Keuchel.
During the four-run sixth inning, in which Reynaldo López and Kyle Crick combined for four walks and four hits, one Sox fan seated near the press box loudly wondered: “I’m freezing my ass off for this?!?”
He and the rest of the fanbase would be fair to hope that Tuesday night’s loss to the Royals was as bad as things can get. An eight-game losing streak in April does not necessarily tank a season, but the larger concern is if the flaws being exposed during this stretch are going to keep resurfacing as the year goes on.
Namely, a pitching staff that combines for eleven walks in a game. Seven errors in seven days for Tim Anderson. A combined 20 errors for the team that leads baseball. An offense that has the third-lowest OPS in the league (.602).
All of this may be adding up to a team that is beginning to press. That might explain why they are struggling to string hits together. Why usually strong defenders are making bad plays. Why the pitchers are issuing so many free passes.
But La Russa sees this as at least a sign that his team is not giving up, that they expect to be better than the results of the last eight games.
“I see it in the dugout. They’re getting upset when they should be upset,” La Russa said. “They’re trying to force things because they don’t like the way it’s going. They get frustrated when they don’t play as good as they should. All that part of it, the heart and the guts are intact. It’s not fun. It’s tough to take. I’m sure the fans are not happy. But neither is the club.”
La Russa is choosing to see the team pressing as a good sign. If they didn’t care, they wouldn’t be pressing, La Russa said. Keuchel said he has felt some of that, much of it springing from a desire to take the reigns as the starting pitcher.
“I do think a little bit of pressing is involved and I’m probably the biggest culprit of it,” he said. “But I like what I see most times from a lot of the guys. It’s just a matter of when.”
There are plenty of reasons to expect this losing streak to be a blip on the schedule five months from now. Generally speaking, the Sox are simply too talented for this kind of play to continue for much longer. And more specifically, they have players returning to the roster who have been out with injury. Lucas Giolito just rejoined the rotation Sunday, Luis Robert is expected to come back Wednesday, and coming soon are Yoán Moncada (expected to head Triple-A Charlotte for a rehab assignment this weekend) and Johnny Cueto (expected to start for Charlotte Thursday).
“We still very much believe in this team’s talent, we believe in this team’s upside and are confident over time that talent will prevail and take us to the level that we aspire to be at, that we intended to be at the start of this season,” general manager Rick Hahn said. “There’s no voiding the frustration and disappointment but one of the beautiful things about this sport is the length of the season really forces the cream to rise to the top over the course of the six-month season and there’s still an ample opportunity to prove we’re capable of being that again this season.”
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