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White Sox see ninth-inning rally as sign of normalcy, while Dallas Keuchel tries to escape his new normal
The White Sox started May with the kind of thing they experienced all too often in April.
But Sunday’s 6-5 defeat at the hands of the Angels came with a caveat: a possible light at the end of the tunnel.
That’s at least the hope, as after eight shutout frames twirled by Michael Lorenzen, the White Sox mounted a ninth-inning uprising, sending 11 men to the plate and turning a 6-0 blowout into a 6-5 nailbiter, hanging an unexpected crooked number in the game’s final moments.
Who knows if it will be the spark that blasts the White Sox out of their early season offensive funk. But after the game, the opinions were unanimous in the home clubhouse at 35th and Shields.
That was more like it.
“It was a great inning we put together, and it’s a little bit of the baseball we expect to play,” Gavin Sheets said. “I think we’re going to build off that and take it as a positive. … I think that’s a sign of things to come, hopefully.
“A lot of times early in April, this game would end at 6-0. … We’ve got to take some positives from that.”
Though Tony La Russa wasn’t off base in suggesting the day as a whole had many offensive moments of note – the White Sox had runners on base in each of the first seven frames – things looked a little different in the ninth, and talking hyperbolically, it seemed they saw more pitches in that inning than in the previous eight combined. (In actuality, it was 38 pitches in the ninth, compared to 91 the previous eight innings, an average of fewer than 12 pitches per inning.)
Hits by José Abreu, Sheets, Leury García and Tim Anderson were joined by flukier ones from Josh Harrison, whose pop fly dropped in front of a slipping Jo Adell in left field, and Luis Robert, whose latest grounder was beaten out by a replay-changed infield single. But it was the walk from Yasmani Grandal and Abreu’s hit by pitch, the latter forcing in a run, that served as medicine to those fans clamoring for a more patient approach.
Anderson’s first-pitch homer Saturday quieted some of those calls directed at him and reminded how he turned himself into one of the game’s great hitters, by being aggressive. Robert has become Twitter’s favorite target for swinging early in the counts, though the preseason MVP candidate signaled postgame no intent on changing his approach, expressing his own confidence in getting back to normal.
“I feel pretty good right now,” Robert said through team interpreter Billy Russo. “Even though the results are not there, I think I’m hitting the ball well. Unfortunately, I’m hitting the ball where there is somebody to catch the ball. But, hey, I’m going to keep trying, and I’m going to try to figure out a way to get hits.”
But the ninth-inning rally did show something new for these White Sox, at least something rare in 2022. They did what Harrison told me earlier this week they need to do to snap out of their slump: pass the baton. Whether hitting, walking or getting drilled with a pitch, they strung together successful at-bats. If the game’s earlier moments were positive signs for La Russa, they were accompanied by signs of what has kept this offense stagnant. In seven straight innings they put men on base. They all stayed put.
Not so in the ninth. This offense has always been capable of doing damage in a big way, and that will only be more true once health is restored. Even if Eloy Jiménez is expected to miss two months, Robert has returned from a short groin-induced absence, Andrew Vaughn could play Monday after getting hit in the hand, and Yoán Moncada already has a home run to his name on his minor league rehab assignment.
Now, the task becomes making entire games look like that ninth inning. That’s when these White Sox bats will truly be back to normal.
“Nothing surprises me with what we do as a team,” Dallas Keuchel said. “As well as we have not played together, that was standard right there.
“It’s nice to see smiles and hits instead of sadness and slumber, waiting for the next day. I’d like to smile a little bit more and get some more wins.”
Keuchel, of course, was the other half of the equation Sunday. It looked like his four-run, five-walk outing would be excused by a hibernating offense, but that didn’t prove the case thanks to the ninth-inning rally. Still, Keuchel, a crafty-veteran type who’s not trying to overpower anyone with blazing speed, issued five walks, the second straight time he’s done that after that nightmarish, error-filled start in Cleveland.
White Sox Twitter’s least favorite White Sox pitcher doesn’t seem likely to get the boot anytime soon, not with the rotation still down Lance Lynn, Vince Velasquez claiming just one really good outing this season and Johnny Cueto a mystery pitching at Triple-A. But the results are the results, and we’re frequently reminded that this is a results-oriented business.
Keuchel’s walking too many guys, and certainly he knows it, pointing to the other aspects of his game – getting ground balls, getting movement on his pitches and his general health; all things that didn’t work out last season – as being to his liking.
It’s easy to look at his 8.40 ERA and a boatload of free passes and wonder if this is 2021 all over again. He doesn’t think it is.
“It’s a lot easier to develop bad habits than it is to continue good ones,” Keuchel said. “The second half of last year, I was developing more bad habits than I was doing well. It’s just a matter of being comfortable and doing what I’m doing in between starts, feeling great and commanding the ball, just taking that into the game consistently. Because it’s there, and if it’s not there, you kind of see it with the walks. … I’m not making that one pitch (to get an out) as easy as it should be. I should be able to command the zone early and get early contact. That’s a lot of what it is.
“It’s a totally different situation (than it was last year), to be honest with you. I put myself in some bad habits last year. This year, it’s all about commanding the ball. I feel like everything’s breaking normal, and I feel good. I’ll take (that) any day of the week over what I was trying to do last year in the second half, as opposed to what was happening. There’s a lot of positives coming out of these starts.”
Even if that’s the case, the White Sox are trying to win the World Series. The sample size remains small enough in 2022 to continue to wait for Keuchel’s bounce back, from a results standpoint, which the team expressed so much confidence in since the end of last season. But how long can they afford to wait?
Keuchel was realistic enough to know he wasn’t going to make the team’s playoff rotation last year, something that he’s used as a motivating factor ever since. Is he realistic enough to know he’s got to figure things out in a hurry?
“It’s frustrating,” Keuchel said, “but I know it’s there and it’s coming. It’s just a matter of hanging on and controlling what I can control.”
The White Sox are looking to get their bats back to normal. Keuchel is looking to escape what, since the middle of 2021, has become his new normal.
Because if what we saw throughout April is normal for the 2022 White Sox, it’s going to be awfully difficult for them to achieve their championship goals.
“We’ve just got to keep working,” Sheets said. “We’ve got to stay positive. We’re going to snap out of this. I think we all know that, and when it happens, it’s going to be exciting.
“We still know the talent we have in here, nothing’s changed. We know we’re going to snap out of it, hopefully sooner rather than later, and hopefully we can use this little surge today to get going.”
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