It was a mixed bag of a weekend on the South Side, in which the White Sox won as many games as they lost.
In other words, their season continues on much the way it has gone for three and a half months.
The second half started with a couple of thuds, and things nearly got really disastrous in the second game of Saturday’s doubleheader. But a comeback win that night, followed by an unexpected clubbing of Guardians ace Shane Bieber led to back-to-back wins.
A turning point?
Come on, we’re smart enough to stop asking that question.
But while a .500 weekend has the White Sox exactly where they were when the All-Star break ended Friday, at .500, they showed signs, showed they’re capable of doing things that could pull them out of what’s been a season-long malaise.
Rick Hahn started the series talking about what he’ll be looking to do ahead of the trade deadline, now just over a week away on Aug. 2. Don’t expect a massive reshaping that replaces half the roster, but the general manager said he’ll be looking for bullpen help and to perhaps improve the offense at second base or in right field. Those kinds of midseason shake-ups can be the jolt that teams, regardless of record, need.
With their record, the White Sox could use a jolt, indeed.
“It is always a power boost when you make a move, no matter if you’re on a winning team or a losing team,” Yasmani Grandal said Saturday. “I feel like when you make a move, it shows trust in the team. It shows trust in the ability the players have. All they’re trying to do is help us out to get to where we want to be.”
But the biggest contributions to any turnaround will have to come from within, from guys who haven’t produced much suddenly doing what the White Sox have long said they will and playing to the backs of their baseball cards.
For the White Sox, that means power. They’ve been among the worst in baseball when it comes to home runs this season. So does this offense have what it takes to still be the kind of force we thought it’d be when the season began?
“If we keep hitting dingers,” Hahn said Friday.
Back-to-back days with home runs from Eloy Jiménez served as a tantalizing “what if?” for the team and fans alike, who would both feel a lot better – and see a lot more wins – if the one-time Silver Slugger could make up for lost time with a second-half power surge. Tony La Russa described the infusion of Jiménez into the offense as “a different lineup when he’s in there.”
But Jiménez, even with his talent, can’t do it alone, and the White Sox will need a heck of a lot more days like Sunday, when they tagged the typically untaggable Bieber for three long balls, Leury García and AJ Pollock joining Jiménez in a getaway-day derby that ended in a 6-3 win.
Asked if this was more like it for this offense, Jiménez his classic response:
“What do you think?”
Jiménez spent so much time as one of the guys the White Sox were waiting for, and his return was trumpeted as the team getting much closer to looking how it was supposed to in the spring. Yasmani Grandal, too, has rejoined the club after a lengthy absence, and the White Sox can’t stop dreaming about a repeat of 2021, when his late-summer return from injury came with an offensive barrage that saw him put up some of the best numbers in the sport.
Grandal, when healthy, has been one of the least productive big leaguers in 2022, so a personal turnaround would obviously go a long way in plugging one of the White Sox’ most maddening lineup holes. For his part, he followed up an oh-fer return Friday – in which he said he was so excited to be back he was still shaking halfway through the game – with four hits and a walk in Saturday’s doubleheader.
Grandal has been less than himself all season, and I’m not talking about his woeful numbers. He spent the time before his lengthy IL stay battling the aftereffects of offseason knee surgery, not spending nearly as much time behind the plate as you’d expect from a No. 1 catcher. Now, he says, he feels as good as he has all year, that physical rejuvenation perhaps priming him for a statistical one.
“It’s coming. I’m confident in it,” Grandal said. “Confidence is definitely going up and trending in the right direction, which is something you always want to have.”
While we’re talking positives, let’s not forget Lance Lynn, who has spent the summer searching for himself after missing the season’s first two months while recovering from his own knee surgery (it’s kind of been a theme). Lynn was expected to deliver something akin to what made him the third-place finisher in last year’s AL Cy Young vote. Instead, struggles.
But he was himself once more in the second game Saturday, with six scoreless innings. His ERA is still 6.43, explaining his hopeful but “still not good enough” attitude during his postgame media session. But there’s no understating how important Lynn being Lynn would be to the prospects of a White Sox turnaround.
“Better,” Lynn said of his performance Saturday. “The things I’ve been working on are starting to click, and that’s all you can do. You’ve got to keep working in between starts. Hopefully that’s a good (outing to) get my legs under me for the second half here and help us win ballgames.
“Just kind of went back to some things that have worked in the past and that I’m physically able to do again. So that’s the main thing is making sure that physically I stay strong in the second half and I’m able to stay mechanically where I need to be, because I created some bad habits trying to protect the knee.”
Of course, all this said, this was hardly a dreamy four games for the White Sox, who didn’t exactly continue the momentum gained by winning five of their final six games before the All-Star break. Taking three of four against the Twins last weekend seemed to offer a glimpse at a more anticipated future, one where the White Sox were the obvious class of the Central Division.
Instead, the second half started with back-to-back losses to the Guardians, who are still in front of them in the standings, and the season-long habit of matching every step forward with a step backward.
Lucas Giolito didn’t give up much in the way of hard, loud contact Friday, but the Guardians turned it into six runs off him anyway, leaving him to face another round of questioning about what’s troubling him this year. After dazzling against these same Guardians before the break, he was knocked around for nine hits and out after three innings, his season ERA jumping back up over 5.00.
“It sucks. It’s a results game and getting poor results, putting our team in a hole, I’ve got to find a way to be better,” Giolito said Friday. “I’ve made some good adjustments, but I’ve got a lot more in the tank than what I’m showing. It’s frustrating because it’s probably just one little adjustment away that I just haven’t gotten to yet.”
Even with Giolito still searching, continued solid efforts by Dylan Cease and Johnny Cueto, teamed with Lynn’s great second-half debut, will keep the rotation off the top spot on Hahn’s deadline to-do list, though he didn’t rule out addition to the starting staff.
His main priority is the relief corps, and boy did it look like it Saturday. No one’s replacing Liam Hendriks, fresh off his second All-Star appearance in as many seasons in a White Sox uniform, as the team’s closer, but a rare bad day for him resulted in a brutal loss in Game 1 of Saturday’s twin bill, the Guardians touching him for three ninth-inning runs to spoil an earlier White Sox comeback. Then the bullpen nearly ruined Lynn’s gem, too, the Guardians erasing a 4-0 deficit against José Ruiz and Reynaldo López before Pollock came through with a clutch hit for a late victory.
Meanwhile, the White Sox still can’t completely escape the injury bug that’s chomped down on them all year. For Jiménez and Grandal boosting the team with their returns, it’s played without Luis Robert for the last six games and will be without him on the upcoming two-game trip to Denver, too. Robert’s lightheadedness and blurred vision have mystified fans asking about a cause of those symptoms, and Hahn didn’t have an answer on that front Friday. But Robert has been running and playing catch and is hoped to return for next weekend’s series against the A’s.
It’s the little nagging injuries that might loom larger, though. Jiménez is still getting acclimated to playing with discomfort in his surgically repaired leg. While such a thing is not unexpected, it is bothering him, hence his departure from a pre-break game in Cleveland – that forced him to miss the entirety of that series in Minneapolis – and the fact that he’s not moving around at 100 percent in the outfield. Teams have noticed, the Guardians turning a pair of balls hit his way into hustle doubles Saturday.
“It’s OK,” Jiménez said Sunday. “I will be there for that. They can eat right now. I’m going to eat later.”
Meanwhile, the White Sox continue to rest players with their health in mind. La Russa gave a lengthy explanation on the decision to sit Andrew Vaughn in Sunday’s series finale, one that struck fans as … let’s say curious, considering the recent All-Star break and two off days sandwiched around the two contests in Denver.
“In Andrew’s case, he’s (been playing) out in the outfield,” La Russa said before Sunday’s game. “I talked to him this morning and talked to (White Sox trainer James) Kruk and thought it would be a good break. We were careful with his legs there for a while, and he’s starting to feel himself. So it’s a good day to back off.
“Sometimes you need freshness of mind, and (sometimes) you need freshness of body. The case here, it’s freshness of body. The guy’s not going to go out there when he’s all tight and hurt, and he plays and pulls something, tears something. What’s the point? He had four days off and three rugged days here. He ran a lot. Believe me, if there wasn’t a good reason, Andrew’s as good a hitter as we have in our lineup, he’d be in the lineup. There’s a good reason.
“You want to C.Y.A. (cover your ass) and write someone in that shouldn’t play, that’s just not sensible. Vaughn, physically, would be a push we would regret if something happened and then he’s out for two or three weeks because he pulled something. … Sometimes it’s not a tough call. This was an easy one to give him a day off. And believe me, against anybody, we want Andrew Vaughn in the lineup.”
The White Sox can point to their still immense collection of talent, the mere handful of games separating them from the Twins at the top of the division and the more than two months left on the regular-season calendar and say that a turnaround is still possible. And they’d be right to do so.
But it doesn’t mean it will happen. The onus is on the players to make it happen.
Getting Lynn back to normal, Grandal back to normal, Jiménez back to normal, Robert back to normal, Giolito back to normal, Yoán Moncada back to normal, it’s all essential if the White Sox are still thinking about the championship-level goals they set for themselves in the spring.
“Obviously it hasn’t been our year so far,” Lynn said, “but there’s still some games left, there’s still some things we’re capable of doing.”
Capable, yes. But winning. That’s what needs to happen now.
“It’s tough, but the season is not done yet. A lot of games left,” Jiménez said. “And we’re going to try our best. The past already is in the past. We’re moving forward and trying to win.”
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