Between the Fourth of July and the All-Star break, the White Sox will play 16 games, all of them against the American League Central. Beginning with this week’s homestand that starts with a three-game series against the Twins, 12 of those 16 games are against Minnesota and Cleveland. The two teams the White Sox are chasing in the division standings.
The Sox trailed the Guardians by two games and the Twins by 4.5 going into Monday night’s game against the Twins. All games count equal in the win/loss column, but the Sox are headed into a pivotal stretch of their season, where wins against the Twins and Guardians will move them up the standings more quickly.
“This is a real crunch time for us to make sure we get everything firing so we can claw our way back,” closer Liam Hendriks said.
Hendriks was activated from the injured list before Monday’s game against the Twins. He had been sidelined with right forearm tightness since June 11. Every team deals with injuries, but the Sox have had to navigate through a near-constant state of missing key players like Hendriks. That is not the only reason they are still a game below .500 and approaching the next two weeks as underdogs, but it’s a factor.
“You go into a bunch of games where you feel like it’s a tougher challenge, especially when you’re coming back, and then you lose a guy the next day,” manager Tony La Russa said.
Along with Hendriks, outfielder Adam Engel was activated Monday. Engel left during the fourth inning against the Blue Jays on June 22 with right hamstring tightness. Eloy Jiménez is on his way back too. He made another rehab start for Triple-A Charlotte Monday night. He has been out since late April with a torn tendon in his right hamstring. There have been stops and starts in his rehab, which started in Charlotte about a month after his injury.
“Talking to him this weekend and this morning, he’s feeling good,” La Russa said. “But to play and feel good, the guys watching him have to evaluate that. He can’t come here to get in shape and then get hurt.”
La Russa said that how Jiménez performs and how he feels after playing Monday night will determine whether Jiménez can rejoin the team at the earlier part of this crucial stretch of games.
Headed into these important contests against the Twins and Guardians, it helps that the Sox are going into this stretch fresh off of a three-game sweep of the Giants in San Francisco. Not just because they got three much-needed wins to get closer to .500, but because of the kind of baseball they played.
In all three games, the starting pitchers – Lance Lynn, Dylan Cease, and Lucas Giolito – went at least five innings. Giolito’s performance in the Sunday series finale was particularly good. He allowed just one run in six innings while striking out seven and giving up only three hits. To go with that, the offense came to life for 13 runs on Sunday. All without hitting a home run.
“The smartest thing we can do is fill the park with line drive base hits,” La Russa said. “And not get caught in ‘our averages are climbing, we’re not hitting the ball out of the park.’ If you get distracted that way, we’re going to hit less. There’s a lot of good approaches and it’s paying off.”
As a club, the Sox still ranked 22nd in runs scored (328) and 27th in home runs (61) going into Monday’s game. They have shown they can score without the longball, but not consistently. For the 13 runs the Sox scored on Sunday, they managed just one Friday night. Even though they won over the weekend without hitting for power, their low run-scoring and lack of power will probably continue to get in the way of moving up in the standings.
And if the Sox continue to struggle like they have through the first half of the season, not only will the World Series dreams be dashed, but the makeup of the roster might come into question. A full-scale teardown would not necessarily be in the cards, but general manager Rick Hahn might have to start reconsidering who best fits on a roster meant to be built for contention.
“I’m not a GM. I can’t speak to it. It’s what their plans are,” Hendriks said. “But if we go through a tough stretch in these next couple weeks and then we’re looking at the possibility of a 10-game back in the division, and that’s also out of the wild card. There’s a lot of different things that come into it.”
There is a lot riding on the next 16 games. The next two weeks could dictate the outcome of the season, and maybe where the franchise goes from here. After engaging in a multi-year rebuild and finally putting together a team that was able to reach the postseason in 2020 and 2021, having it all fall apart this year would be a massive disappointment.
It’s all enough to create an increased sense of import over the coming weeks. Hendriks seems to be feeling it, but not everyone on the team is. At least not publicly.
“Urgency is kind of a buzzword that the people on the outside looking in might place on a team,” Engel said. “This team is going to be a really good, scary team when we’re all there.”
Time, or the next 16 games, might tell.
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