A few days before the trade deadline, on July 30, the White Sox were right at .500 and three games back in their division. Manager Tony La Russa’s prescription for his team at that point was simple.
“Big thing is we got to win series. We got to get bunch of wins to really say we’re in contention,” he said.
Roughly two weeks later, the Sox are two games above .500 after beating the Tigers 2-0 on Friday and 6-4 on Saturday. If they complete the series sweep, the Sox will be three games above .500 for the first time since they had a 6-3 record on April 17. They sit two-and-a-half games behind Cleveland for the division lead. Not much has changed.
Ultimately, the Sox are still looking for galvanizing moments. During the series in Kansas City earlier this week, Johnny Cueto raised questions about whether or not the team had any fire. If they are going to get it, they need something to create a spark.
In their win over the Tigers Saturday, there were two such moments, potentially. Starter Lucas Giolito gave up four runs in the first three innings, but after giving up an RBI double to Detroit catcher Eric Haase, Giolito retired 12 straight. He ended up pitching seven innings and only allowed one base hit after the third inning.
The moment for Giolito was a call he didn’t get in the second inning. He got two quick outs but walked designated hitter Kerry Carpenter. The pitch that did it for Giolito was ball four on a full count.
“I got a little pissed off after the second inning,” Giolito said. “It was a big pitch that inning on a 3-2 count that was as strike, I would have liked. Could have made the inning go a lot different.”
Four or five years ago, a moment like that would have lead to frustration, like it did Saturday. But the difference back then was how Giolito responded.
“I was scratching, clawing, struggling then. So those things would get to me and really ruin an outing,” Giolito said.
Now, he gets mad and makes adjustments. Giolito said he and Yasmani Grandal changed their approach after the first three innings, moving away from his changeup and shifting to using his fastball more. A wise move, it turned out. Only three members of the Tigers have batting averages above .300 against the four-seam fastball this season, and one of them (Miguel Cabrera) was not in the lineup. The other two – Javier Baez and Harold Castro – did not get the chance to do damage against Giolito’s four-seam after the third inning. In his fifth-inning strikeout, Baez only saw one fastball and swung and missed. Against Castro, Giolito stuck to a changeup and a slider.
All of that because of a call he didn’t like in the second inning. Giolito used the frustration as fuel to adjust and give his team seven innings.
“I made it a point to channel it into aggression toward executing pitches and starting finding a rhythm in the fourth, fifth inning and carried it through seven,” Giolito said.
Jose Abreu provided another potential spark in the seventh inning. With the score tied 4-4, Abreu singled and then tagged up and took second on Grandal’s deep flyout to center field. The call at second base was close enough that it needed a review, but Abreu reached safely. Taking that extra base was a small thing, but it put him in scoring position with two outs. Enough for Andrew Vaughn’s single to send Abreu across the plate for the go-ahead run.
“That’s heads up, knowing the situation,” La Russa said. “He’s a very heady, plays defense the same way. Very smart about when to try something and when to make it routine.”
It’s a small thing, taking an extra base. But it can spark a team.
“It’s huge. Pito’s not a very fast guy, but he knows baseball,” Vaughn said. “And he knew, ‘hey if I can get into scoring position right here,’ you don’t even have to ask him. That’s exactly what he did. It’s the little things sometimes.”
“He’s a leader by example,” Giolito said. “So when he’s out there playing his ass off, doing the little things right, giving the extra effort, just so we have a chance to scratch another run across, it’s uplifting. I think it’s motivation for every single guy watching it in the dugout, on-deck circle.”
More of that kind of motivation is going to be needed. Every team deals with injuries, but one of the things that seems to have held the Sox back this season has been their inability to field a healthy lineup. Not that many days after Tim Anderson needed surgery that has shelved him for a month and a half, Luis Robert exited Friday night’s game with a wrist sprain. La Russa said Saturday that Robert was still just day-to-day, but injuries like that can take a while to go away.
For most of the rest of the season, the Sox will not be able to play at full strength.
“You concentrate on what you have, not what you’re missing,” La Russa said. “You compete with what you got. This sport is big enough. You got 13 pitchers and 13 other players. You can deal with injuries if your mind is right, and our minds are right.”
Looking forward, the Sox have a challenging couple of weeks ahead. After they finish the weekend series against the Tigers, they have four games at home against the Astros, three in Cleveland, and then three in Baltimore. Winning games against Detroit is to be expected, but the weeks ahead will tell whether moments like the ones that came Saturday were truly galvanizing.
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