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White Sox start Dodgers series with win, but need more than Jake Burger to turn season around

Vinnie Duber Avatar
June 8, 2022

The White Sox’ run differential stinks.

But hey, it’s a little better now.

From minus-56 to minus-52, that was the climb after a 4-0 win to start a marquee series against the Dodgers.

Baby steps.

Before Tuesday’s game, Rick Hahn was the one describing his team’s run differential as particularly putrid, and he wasn’t wrong. Only six teams in baseball were in worse shape in that department when the sun came up.

Hahn’s objective assessment of that number came in the middle of another state-of-the-Sox press conference in which he professed faith the team’s sputtering offense will one day reach its potential. The offensive output was a mere 3.65 runs a game heading into this challenging series with NL West-leading Dodgers. Four runs served as the bare minimum to raise that average, however slightly, Tuesday.

Even with the runs still at a premium, these White Sox were riding somewhat high as they returned to the South Side following a 2-4 road trip through the AL East.

Despite all the pertinent questions for Hahn regarding a disappointing start to a season with championship expectations, there were others wondering if back-to-back wins against the Rays over the weekend would be a turning point. Certainly, a late-inning win Saturday and a blowout-turned-nailbiter of a win Sunday showed something that four straight losses prior had not. And you can throw Tuesday’s blanking of the high-powered Dodgers offense onto the pile of positives.

Jake Burger, of course, is the hero du jour, his pinch-hit homer the difference in Saturday’s win. He added a pair of doubles and two more RBIs on Sunday before an RBI double during Tuesday’s sixth-inning rally. While his total production this season hasn’t been overwhelmingly impressive – he’s batting under .250, with an on-base percentage south of .300 – he has come through in some big moments, showing a clutch ability that could define his future role as a big bat off the bench, rather than an everyday guy at third base.

But while the everyday guy at third base, Yoán Moncada, continues to struggle so deeply – he’s hitting .143 – Burger does look the better option.

“He’s done it enough to where you know the situation doesn’t scare him,” Tony La Russa said after Tuesday’s win. “I don’t think he concentrates any more, because I see him when there’s nobody on base and he takes a quality at-bat.

“He doesn’t get distracted by the urgency, the pressure of the moment, which is an outstanding quality.”

The balance, though, is a tough one for these White Sox to strike. Sure, it’s easy to suggest more playing time for Burger right now, while he’s driving in runs and while Moncada continues to look mystified at the plate. But if the White Sox are going to accomplish the goals they set for themselves at the start of the season – chiefly winning the World Series – they’re going to need Moncada to awaken from his offensive slumber.

Third base isn’t the only place where things aren’t easy, no surprise considering how team-wide the offensive problems have been this season. Yasmani Grandal has been one of baseball’s least productive hitters and revealed last week he’s not all the way back from offseason knee surgery. Josh Harrison has been woeful at second base, while Danny Mendick has gotten some hits in a very small sample size filling in for the injured Tim Anderson at shortstop. AJ Pollock’s numbers aren’t quite as bad, but even after delivering the tie-breaking two-run double against his former mates Tuesday, they’re not the kind of numbers the White Sox needed when they made him their biggest offensive acquisition of the offseason.

With such a number of struggling hitters, the solutions aren’t as simple as plugging the right guys into the lineup each day, though fans are always quick to suggest there’s something La Russa could do better in writing out his daily starting nine.

Anderson and José Abreu, the team’s two hard-working leaders, have unsurprisingly pointed to continued hard work as the key to emerging from what has now become a two-month offensive malaise. That work is being done, even if the fans can’t see it. And that’s what’s keeping the GM relatively chipper with his team still underwater.

“Players tend not to fundamentally just lose ability. It doesn’t just evaporate,” he said. “Certainly guys decline as they get older, but it tends not to just evaporate on them. So many of the players that have delivered success in the past can be reasonably counted on, barring injury, to produce at a similar level going forward.

“Not too dissimilar from that, coaches don’t lose the ability to coach. Offensively, we haven’t been the team we envision being or are capable of being over the course of the season so far. But the same coaches are involved who wound up with three or four Silver Sluggers in 2020 and had us fourth in the league in runs created last year in 2021. Those methods have been proven effective with good players, and there’s reason to be optimistic it’s going to continue.

“But that similar dissatisfaction or eagerness for things to get better, desire for improvement, that permeates everyone here. That may be something that’s difficult to pick up from outside. … But there’s no one in there who is satisfied with where things sit and doesn’t think they are capable of making it better going forward.”

Belief in “the back of the baseball card” is all well and good. And over the remaining four months, logic says that Moncada, Grandal, Pollock and the rest should escape their early-season doldrums and produce at a much higher clip, the kind of clip that could revitalize this season on the South Side.

Until then, though, Burger is standing out as something that’s going right. Prior to Pollock’s heroics Tuesday, Burger had driven in the winning run in the team’s previous four victories.

No matter how unrealistic it might seem that he’d leapfrog Moncada on the third-base depth chart or suddenly find himself an adept second baseman – La Russa still seems reluctant to play Burger on that part of the infield – he’ll take the opportunities where he can get them.

“Whenever your name’s called, you’ve got to be prepared and contribute in any way you can,” Burger said Tuesday. “It’s hard to wrap my head around it, at times, considering in 2019 I’m (spending the summer) watching the World Cup by myself on the couch. It’s all part of it. I’m just taking care of my preparation and constantly putting my best foot forward.”

Of course, just simply being here, let alone producing, is astonishing for a guy who had so much time wiped away by injuries. Those injuries took the former first-rounder out of the White Sox’ long-term plans, and Moncada’s entrenchment at third base was downright necessary because of it.

Burger has finally arrived as a bona fide big leaguer, though with no starting spot inked on a long-term depth chart like Moncada, he’ll take any opportunity he can get. In the end, his best role for these White Sox – at least an ideal version of these White Sox, where Moncada and others aren’t struggling to even glimpse the Mendoza Line – is as a pinch-hitter extraordinaire, delivering the kind of hits in clutch moments like he did in Florida.

That’s not an easy role to take on, of course, to sit around for hours and make the most of one at-bat. It’s not far off from the challenges of being a DH, which hitters as accomplished as Abreu have vocally detested. Both of those things, though, might be the bulk of Burger’s job description once Moncada gets going again. Burger was the White Sox’ designated hitter Tuesday night, La Russa knowing he had to find a way to keep Burger’s bat in the lineup, this time, perhaps, at the expense of the light-hitting Grandal.

Those challenges aren’t going away, of course, and so Burger – with his teammates’ help – will have to master them if he’s going to keep his story going.

“I think it’s the hardest thing to do in sports, pinch-hit off the bench,” Burger said. “This year, it’s more about – when I’m starting, as well – controlling my emotion and controlling my energy and slowing down the game a little bit. It’s awesome having guys like AJ Pollock and Josh Harrison and (Adam) Engel that can all kind of talk me through it, guys that have done it in the past. They were on the bench with me and helping me through that (on Saturday).

“(When it comes to DH’ing), I always have to be moving. The training and getting in the cage, stretching and doing all that, while you can, stay hot. I try to simulate some sort of game environment in the cage. Whether it’s (assistant hitting coach) Howie Clark throwing me fastballs (and) changeups, and (simulating a situation where) I’m hunting a certain pitch and stuff like that.

“You’ve got to always be mentally dialed in, because when you’re stepping in the box that adrenaline hits. You want to try to get that adrenaline a little before it.”

Whether Burger’s weekend heroics end up the start of something special for the White Sox or not, it will be a mighty challenge to turn it into immediate momentum. The Dodgers are one of baseball’s best teams on an annual basis, and 2022 has proven no exception. Though the White Sox have, statistically, the easiest remaining schedule in the game, they’ll face the Astros and Blue Jays, in addition to the Dodgers, before the close of June.

Hahn cited the obvious avalanche of injuries, and the slowly returning health, as a reason to believe brighter days are ahead, and he’s not wrong. Eloy Jiménez and Anderson should return relatively soon, and Lance Lynn is not far off from joining a rotation that’s been mostly excellent.

But none of that changes what’s been the most shocking aspect of this team so far: that a cadre of supposedly big bats has been anything but.

When will they come around? That remains to be seen. It’s been a painful waiting game for White Sox fans.

And though it will come as little comfort, they haven’t been alone.

“Those closest to me will attest that, yes, my patience has been tested,” Hahn said. “But I think that makes me no different from any White Sox fan or ardent follower of this club. We’ve all been tested over the last few months here.

“I get the benefit of being inside those meetings and those conversations, being able to see the progress on some of the injured players, being able to see some of the things we’re working on to get some of the guys who have struggled out of their ruts. So I’m able to have not only the ability to be able to address some of these things personally, but also feel like the reasons for optimism are legitimate and make me feel better and make me give it a little longer, perhaps, before my patience runs out.

“All of us – whether it’s Jerry (Reinsdorf), Kenny (Williams), myself, the coaches, any White Sox fan – we’ve all had our patience tested. But the fundamentals of who this team is remain. We’re fortunate that baseball is a long season, and over the course of a long season, things tend to play out the way the talent permits. And we feel good about this talent.”

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