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Five weeks into the season, the White Sox are still trying to find their footing. They have looked brilliant for stretches, like a 6-2 start and a recent 6-0 stretch that included most of the last homestand. They have also looked plenty bad, like an eight-game losing streak and the first two games of this four game series against the Yankees.
Those are puzzling results, especially for a team with a roster like the Sox, and so far the only consistent quality of this group has been their steadfast refusal to be publicly rattled by any of it.
Maybe this comes from enough of the players having been around long enough to have seen plenty of the ups and downs a baseball season is sure to bring. Or, whatever you might think about manager Tony La Russa the in-game strategist, it might come in part from a managing resume that goes back to long before any of the guys on his team were born.
“You sign on knowing if you’re going to be a contender, you’ve got to be mentally tough as well as physically tough,” La Russa said. “Season is going to have its ups and downs. Sometimes they are a little more minimal, sometimes it gets more drastic and sometimes you face a hot club and they are playing very well.”
Saturday’s 3-2 win over the Yankees was a microcosm of how up and down things have been for the Sox. A game featuring mostly solid pitching, sure-handed defense, and timely hitting will almost always yield a win. But against a team of the Yankees’ caliber, the margin for error gets very small. So when Joe Kelly pitches the eighth inning and gives up three consecutive singles and trims the lead to 2-1, Liam Hendriks has to get a five-out save and the Sox need to be just about perfect to secure a win.
Hendriks struck out Josh Donaldson and Gleyber Torres to get out of the eighth, but he started the ninth issuing a walk to Joey Gallo and giving up a single to Isiah Kiner-Falefa. Both runners advanced to scoring position with nobody out, putting them in place to score the tying and go-ahead runs on a base hit.
Instead, Kyle Higashioka hit a fly ball to AJ Pollock in left fied. Enough for Gallo to tie the game from third, but heads up defense by Pollock and Yoán Moncada preserved the win. As Kiner-Falefa tried to advance to third while Gallo scored, Pollock threw to Moncada, who was able to tag Kiner-Falefa, giving the Sox a much-needed double play.
“That was huge to get that runner out and clear the bases,” Tim Anderson said. “Now we’ve got a fresh game.”
Anderson scored the game-winning run in the bottom of the ninth. He, Moncada, and Luis Robert all worked effective at-bats against Yankees closer Aroldis Chapman; Anderson singled, Moncada walked, and Robert got to a 3-0 count before eventually hitting the walk-off single.
Chapman is third on the list of active saves leaders with 314, behind only Craig Kimbrel and Kenley Jansen. He regularly hits the upper 90s and still flirts with triple digits. In a tie game it might be tempting for a hitter to try and win it on one swing, but instead, the three Sox batters stuck to small ball. Maybe not as hard a task against the likes of Chapman as it used to be.
“Nowadays everybody’s throwing 99, so it’s kinda regular,” Anderson said. “But we were able to pull away. We had some good at-bats and Luis came up big, and I was able to score from second.”
Robert worked the final at-bat of the game to his advantage, taking three straight balls before drawing the count full and then singling to right field to score Anderson from second.
“It wasn’t that difficult because the pitches were outside, they weren’t close enough. And that situation wasn’t bad,” Robert said of his at-bat through Sox clubhouse interpreter Billy Russo.
Again, maybe a small sample of the way this team is keeping stoic.
This cool-headedness helped on the mound, too. Starter Dallas Keuchel threw five scoreless innings – his first fully scoreless outing since June 15 of last year – but in the fifth inning, he loaded the bases with two outs on a single and back-to-back walks to LeMahieu and Aaron Judge. With Anthony Rizzo at the plate and a 2-0 lead at the time, it would have been an easy time for Keuchel to overreact to the moment.
“I felt like the fifth was a little bit more chaotic for the fans than it was for myself,” Keuchel said. “I’m not going to be ever surprised in a situation where I’m out there. I’m always thinking. I’m always thinking ahead of what’s on the field. Anybody panicking is everybody but myself.”
Not all was perfect, however. Keuchel was clearly frustrated that he didn’t get to go back out for the sixth.
“I thought 85 pitches I had enough to at least go six,” Keuchel said. “With how many games we’re playing, I thought I had at least 100 pitches tonight. That didn’t happen. I’m not very happy with that but that’s the competitor in me.”
Keuchel might have a point. The bullpen had already been heavily used in the first tow games against the Yankees, and after five innings, he and the Sox were still sitting on a 2-0 lead. His exit after five innings meant Kendall Graveman had to take two innings, and Kelly should have handled the eighth. Because Kelly didn’t get his inning done cleanly, Hendriks had to get five outs and throw 26 pitches.
These are things that might create bigger issues later in the season, especially if the bullpen keeps getting taxed, but for now, the Sox are staying in the right head space.
“We’re a team and everybody covers for everybody else,” La Russa said. “It’s the way it’s supposed to be, you don’t disrespect. The only time you have a problem is if you don’t think a pitcher is trying or a hitter is trying and you handle that like you would in a family.”
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