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You’ll remember the five-run rally the White Sox staged in a May 1 loss to the Angels. For a time, it was cited as a turning point for a slow-starting team.
While the White Sox followed up that near comeback with six straight wins, weeks later it’s been proved an anomaly, as opposed to the return to normalcy players had described it as.
Well, Thursday brought another such moment, the White Sox winning the finale of a five-game series against the division-rival Royals by a 7-4 score, one of their few single-game run totals to eclipse four runs this season – and just their third of the year on the road, the first since the season’s opening series in Detroit.
So is this game the true turning point?
“I hope so,” Tim Anderson said after the game.
That all remains to be seen, and another weekend set with the best-in-baseball Yankees provides quite the challenge to the White Sox keeping their bats hot.
They’ll steam into New York still at .500, still nowhere near what was expected of this team. Even after seven runs Thursday, they own one of baseball’s lowest scoring offenses. A lineup supposedly stacked with the likes of Anderson, José Abreu, Luis Robert, Yasmani Grandal, Eloy Jiménez and Yoán Moncada has been incredibly disappointing.
The pitching has performed well. The bats have not come out of their hibernation, outside of Anderson and Robert, who reached base four times and drove in four runs, respectively, Thursday. But the general lack of offense has led to consternation, disgust and downright panic throughout a fan base that was pitched World Series expectations when the campaign began.
The White Sox can look around their clubhouse and see the same talented roster that earned them status as a preseason favorite, and it’s that more than anything that drives the faith that brighter days are ahead, that they can still accomplish their sky-high goals.
While fans are quite sick of hearing how early it is, it is still pretty early, and no mid-May record can either assure or deny a shot at a championship.
“I did look at it one time, the playoff opportunities (I’ve had in my career),” Tony La Russa said before Thursday’s game. “If you looked at all of them, there were only two that were relatively smooth, two others that had (only) a few bumps. So (that leaves) 11 where, if you look at the season, there were all kinds of adversities and obstacles and (thoughts of), ‘Oh man, what’s going to happen?’
“The team has to tough it out, the coaches, the manager. This script hasn’t been written, and we’re in charge of writing it ourselves to the extent that we can improve and play the best baseball we can.
“I’m confident. … These guys, they compete.”
That La Russa has been through this kind of thing before is why he’s here in the first place, remember. The guy with the second most managerial wins in baseball history and three World Series rings on his fingers was brought in because he knows what it takes to win a championship, the only acceptable end to the 2022 season these White Sox have in mind.
His experience and expertise, however, is unlikely to sooth the concerns of riled-up fans who live and die with every game – and every one of La Russa’s lineups, which plenty see as part of the team’s offensive woes.
The truth is there’s a lot that’s gone into the White Sox putting up meager run totals in the vast majority of their games this season. Underperforming stars like Abreu and Grandal have created a hole in the middle of the order. Jiménez has been on the injured list for weeks. Moncada spent a month there to start the season. And the production that La Russa got from a host of fill-ins during an injury-plagued 2021 season hasn’t been there this year.
Fixing all that, of course, is easier said than done.
There’s been an awful lot of attention on hitting coach Frank Menechino as his charges have struggled through a month and a half worth of games. Menechino’s not the one taking the at-bats, obviously, and the players are the ones who have to stop swinging at pitches out of the zone and start stringing hits together and start scoring runs. But he’s the one overseeing a team-wide .232 average and one of the lowest on-base percentages in the game.
Fair or not, the blame is part of the job description.
“If you coach or manage in the big leagues and somebody points a finger at you and that bothers you, you’re doing the wrong thing for a living,” said La Russa, who met with Menechino and assistant hitting coach Howie Clark for a long while after Wednesday’s loss. “And if you coach, you should be able to absorb the hits instead of having a player or some players be targeted.
“But I’m in the (batting) cage a lot. The players know, they’ll tell you, the messages that they’re getting – whether it’s strategy or mechanical – from both of those guys is sound. They’re just not executing.”
As mentioned, it’s on the players to turn that coaching into results in the batter’s box.
Here’s a wonder, though: Are the players listening?
I’m not talking about a failure by Menechino or anyone else tasked with whipping these players into shape. I’m talking about a bunch of guys who have had an awful lot of success in their pro careers – whether as veteran major leaguers or youngsters who had to dominate the minors in order to get to this point – being resistant, intentionally or not, to change.
The whole “dance with the date that brung ya” line of thinking is a tough one to shake, it seems.
“If you’ve been a successful hitter, they are real reluctant to try something different, unless it’s something that’s really tangible and simple,” La Russa said. “Most hitters, you try to give them something, they’ll give you a blank stare. ‘Yeah, yeah, OK. You finished talking?’”
La Russa insisted that his White Sox hitters are open to coaching, citing Anderson, specifically, as someone who’s always wanting to learn and better his craft and calling this “a very healthy situation for a coach.”
But fans aren’t the only ones waiting for these hitters to suddenly return to their usual levels of production, and it shows the challenge the coaching staff might face.
“At the end of the day, the track record speaks for itself. At the end of the day, we’ve got to continue to plug along and push and do what we do,” Josh Harrison told CHGO on Thursday. “You’ve got to keep plugging away. That’s the nature of the beast. And you rely on your guys in here, you rely on the coaching staff.
“We’ve got to do it, but sometimes you need that reminder to say, ‘You know what? Take a step back.’ You can’t do it all on your own, but at the same time, that’s where self-evaluation comes in. ‘Is there anything I could do better?’ If not, I’ve just got to keep plugging away and keep doing what I’ve always done, and something’s going to shake.”
That doesn’t necessarily strike as a resistance to change. But it certainly strikes as a deep-rooted faith that these guys continuing to do what’s made them successful in the past will yield a change in the results at some point.
For some sharp readers, they might identify that as the definition of insanity.
But hey, this is baseball we’re talking about here. The sport is more than a little nuts.
“We have the group of guys to have a good run. We have talent,” Abreu said through team interpreter Billy Russo on Wednesday. “We all know what we need to do in order to perform the way we want to. It’s just on us to work hard every day and do what we know we can do.
“Everybody knows that we are trying our best to win games. Guys here are doing their best, working hard. It’s just a matter of how the game is.”
The team’s work ethic certainly shouldn’t be in question, and the same things that have long been true about the clubhouse culture and what’s going on behind the scenes remain true and continue to be positive.
But the results are the results. In the weeks that followed that supposed turning point against the Angels, the White Sox still struggled to score. They are still .500 and are still staring up at the first-place Twins.
Maybe Thursday’s win can be what that Angels game wasn’t: that mythic one game that can turn everything around.
“Sometimes, all it takes is one game, one pitch, one at-bat. None of us really know,” Harrison said before the game. “But that’s why you’ve got to take each game, each pitch for what it is because they all mean something and you don’t want to throw any away or give any away.
“When we do that as a whole, collectively, we’ll be where we want to be.”
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