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Why is it that football coaches can always say it best?
“Playoffs? Are you kidding me?”
“They are who we thought they were.”
Miguel Cairo has been a breath of fresh air for the White Sox, and his fiery reality check was part of the gumbo of reasons this team was looking a lot more capable during the regular season’s final month.
But he couldn’t come close to summing up these White Sox as well as Jim Mora and Denny Green.
Yes, with their backs against the wall and their playoff hopes on their last legs, the White Sox just kind of did what they’ve done all season Tuesday night, letting a crucial game slip away against the first-place Guardians, all but ensuring those Guardians will be in first place for the remainder of the campaign.
The magnitude of this meeting, or rather the three straight meetings between the two AL Central foes, did not escape the White Sox before a 10-7 extra-inning defeat. They knew the reality of their situation, far from what anyone expected it would be during all the preseason prognosticating, when the South Siders were ranked among the World Series favorites.
Staring at a four-game deficit in the division race, and with a dwindling number of games left on the calendar, this week’s series was being discussed on the outside as a must-sweep if the White Sox were going to salvage a playoff appearance out of a disappointing year in the middle of a contention window. It’s no shock that professional athletes were rolling out their finest cliches and a bunch of “one game at a time” talk pregame. But they knew the score.
“I’ve always said the most dangerous position to be in in a playoff situation is 3-1 up, because the other team, they have two games to get used to having their backs against the wall, where you (are just coming) into it if you get to a Game 7. I think it’s a similar setup with us right now,” Liam Hendriks said. “This is a chance. Our backs are against the wall. … If we don’t play (the way) we need to, will we be going home? Possibly.”
“Our fan base knows what is at stake,” Kendall Graveman said. “We do, too. Unfortunately, we put ourselves in this position, but you have to keep battling. And we have a chance against the team that’s in first.”
But after a 40-minute rain delay and 11 innings of baseball, by the time the clock in the clubhouse flashed midnight, that chance was gone.
Math has not officially eliminated these White Sox from anything. But even had they swept the Guardians, they were staring at a tall task to capture a second straight division crown. Now there will be no tiebreaker in their favor, and the closest they can get by series’ end is three games with a dozen to play.
“With how we’ve put ourselves in a little bit of a hole here, you’ve got to capitalize,” AJ Pollock said postgame. “It wasn’t lack of effort. I think we went out there and gave it everything. Definitely had a chance to make up some ground. And we didn’t.”
Here’s the mathematical reality that hits the hardest: If the Guardians play .500 ball from here on out, go just 7-7 the rest of the way, the White Sox can afford just one loss if they’re going to win the division. They’ll need to go 14-1.
Considering the way the Guardians played Tuesday night, that looks rather impossible.
The Clevelanders got an out-of-nowhere pitching performance from Aaron Civale, who despite coughing up a 1-0 lead in the sixth inning held the White Sox’ bats, supposedly rejuvenated in the month of September, completely silent.
But mostly, the Guardians did that thing they do, where their bargain-basement roster of well developed players tries really, really hard and out-everythings the opposition. They ran all over the White Sox, stealing bases, taking extra bases, turning regular fly balls into scoring opportunities and turning regular ground balls into runs.
The most Guardians-y play of the night actually went the White Sox’ way, as luck would have it, a two-out ground ball into the hole at shortstop resulting in a runner being aggressively waved home from second, only to be called out at the plate on Elvis Andrus’ throw. Seby Zavala’s tag was not actually in time, and had the Guardians not burned their challenge contesting an Andrus steal an inning earlier, they’d have taken a 4-3 lead rather than merely tie the game at 3 against Jimmy Lambert and Aaron Bummer in the seventh.
No matter. They struck against Graveman in the 10th. And even after the White Sox got a clutch game-extending knock from José Abreu, they poured it on against Jake Diekman in the 11th, scoring five times to erase all doubt at which team was playing more like one fighting to secure a postseason berth.
“That team, they’re a smooth team,” Pollock said. “They really haven’t made huge mistakes the whole year. You get some pitching, and it’s a good team.
“I think we fought hard, (made) some mistakes, but it’s not like we came out flat. Guys were ready to play today, and we just lost.”
Let’s not get it wrong here, the White Sox looked like a team fighting for their lives at times, and they mostly made good on their pregame talk.
“You get that chip on your shoulder when you’re not expected to do anything,” Hendriks said. “We’re expected to not make it now, and I think a lot of guys are hopefully able to feed off that and be like, ‘You don’t think we can? Let’s show ‘em how we do it and let’s go do it.’”
Dylan Cease didn’t look like a Cy Young candidate in the first couple innings. But he only gave up one run despite plenty of early trouble – that tally stemming from Pollock bizarrely tripping and falling down in the outfield, allowing a leadoff triple in the second – and managed to throw six innings of one-run ball, showing off his evolution from a young “thrower” into a vastly more mature “pitcher.” Then the offense did its job, rallying for a three spot in the sixth behind a game-tying single from Eloy Jiménez and Pollock hustling on a ground ball to force a throwing error.
But as much as the White Sox sometimes looked like the team that perked up after Cairo took over for Tony La Russa, they also sometimes looked like the team that slogged through five months of uninspiring baseball.
Too often, those White Sox were out of sync. Normally, it was the offense failing to back up its pitchers. But there were nights when the runs finally came and the pitching couldn’t hold up its end of the bargain. Tuesday, Cease and the bats handed the bullpen a late lead. The bullpen couldn’t do its part.
Social media saw plenty of criticism thrown Cairo’s way for plugging Lambert into the high-leverage spot in the seventh, and his back-to-back walks to start the inning both scored to tie the game. But hindsight is 20/20, as they say, and it didn’t seem at all ridiculous for Cairo to call on the guy who’s been one of the White Sox’ finest relievers this season.
That didn’t stop Cairo from shouldering the blame postgame, when he deflected any heat from his players by owning the loss.
“I think I made a few moves I should not have made. Today was on me,” he said. “Our players fought, they fought hard. That was totally on me. … I should have done a better job today. I let my team down.
“I have to do a better job. I have to come back tomorrow and show them, you know, it’s just another day and we have to perform. I have to perform, too.”
Cairo has been at the helm while the White Sox made a late-season surge that made postseason talk sound reasonable, not ridiculous. And that team showed up Tuesday. It showed up in Andrus stealing two bases to try and scrounge up a run. It showed up in Josh Harrison making a pair of all-out defensive plays at second base. It showed up in Reynaldo López and Hendriks turning in 1-2-3 innings to send the game to extras. It showed up in Abreu keeping the candle burning with a game-tying hit in the 10th inning.
It just didn’t show up enough.
Credit the Guardians, who have the look of a playoff team. But shake your head, too, at the same old White Sox that spent so long disappointing fans this summer. Because they showed up, too, falling short despite the huge expectations and the overwhelming amount of talent. Tuesday night was a pretty decent microcosm of the season, with even the effects of a never-ending wave of injuries on display: a huge game for the White Sox without Tim Anderson and with a less-than-healthy Luis Robert.
Though the math hasn’t completely buried the White Sox, it might as well. The odds are that steep. The players won’t like being written off, and baseball has seen its share of insane finishes, sure. But there’s little reason to believe this group, which can’t escape the “one step forward, one step back” aura that’s gripped it all season, will be capable of such a thing.
“I mean, we know where we’re at. We know the situation. The goal was to win the first game,” Pollock said. “I’ve been in situations where the math doesn’t seem right. The key is to just win that next game. The team above you feels that. … It’s a fundamentally sound ballclub, but let’s see what they feel like when you get a little closer and feel us.
“That’s the goal. We’ve got to win the series, got to win tomorrow in order to have a chance of that. Just keep fighting.”
That’s all well and good. But the White Sox will wake up Wednesday five games back in the division with 14 games to play. They’ll wake up Wednesday five and a half games back for the third and final wild card spot. They’ll wake up Wednesday with a six-percent chance of making the playoffs, if you’re into the Fangraphs playoff odds. They’ll wake up Wednesday needing to win a whole lot of games and needing someone else to lose a whole lot.
They’ll wake up Wednesday hoping for everything to change.
But after nearly six months of this, what’s changed for these White Sox? Not enough.
“Playoffs? Are you kidding me?”
“They are who we thought they were.”
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