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DETROIT – We heard it all offseason: The AL Central would not be the cakewalk it was a year ago.
The White Sox won their first division crown in more than a dozen years by a 13-game margin in 2021. Then came an offseason that saw their top two rivals, the Tigers and Twins, bulk up in a big way.
The arms race was on.
The White Sox, though, are still the class of this division, right?
Still the best team, by far, on paper, right?
Well, there’s a reason they don’t play the games on paper. And the closed gap hit the White Sox right in the face on Opening Day. After recent trade acquisition Austin Meadows tripled off Liam Hendriks, Javy Báez, the Tigers’ biggest and highest priced newcomer, blasted a Hendriks pitch just out of the reach of A.J. Pollock in right field for a 5-4 Detroit victory.
It was the ending of a wild season-opening contest between the teams who might just spend the summer jockeying for the AL Central championship.
“Even last year they did have a good lineup,” Hendriks said. “They’ve added a couple pieces that make their lineup significantly harder to pitch to. Two of those guys were the reason that they walked off today.
“I’ve still got to make better pitches in that situation. It shouldn’t even have got that far. But it is what it is, and now I come to the field tomorrow and want to get back out there and do a better job.”
While most fans have settled on the division meaning little and are focused on what lies beyond come October, the White Sox consider it the first step on their path to a World Series trophy. They aren’t planning on taking anyone for granted, but a message to everyone who wants to put the cart before the horse: Don’t do that.
“I think this division is going to be highly contested,” Rick Hahn said Thursday. “I’ve seen many of the prognosticators out there that have us in a pretty comfortable spot in this division. But I disagree. I think this thing is going to go down until September. I think every team in the division is better than they were a year ago, and it’s going to be a fun summer.
“Obviously our first goal is to win the AL Central. Then we have higher aspirations after that to achieve. But our main focus right now is on that first goal. We’re going to be tested, perhaps because we’re the hunted, because we’re the incumbent. … All four other teams are stronger, especially whether it’s due to additions or simply being healthier than they were a year ago.
“We’re going to be tested. We’re ready for it, but it’s going to be a fun summer.”
While Friday’s game was a hoot to watch, don’t expect anyone wearing black and white to call that “fun.”
“Really a hard loss,” Tony La Russa said after the game.
An improved group of Tigers isn’t the only challenge that cropped up as soon as the starter’s pistol was fired on the 2022 campaign.
Already dealt the blows of losing Lance Lynn and Yoán Moncada to injuries before the season began, the White Sox only made it four innings before the arrival of more health concerns, Lucas Giolito making an early exit after experiencing what the team reported as abdominal tightness on his left side.
La Russa expressed concern after the game, not in regards to a then-unknown significance of the injury but that there was an injury at all.
“I’m concerned because he felt something,” La Russa said. “And he was smart, didn’t feel well, didn’t go back out, because who knows what’s going to happen. We got a lot riding on him getting checked and seeing what it is.”
Giolito missing any length of time would be a brutal development for a pitching staff already without Lynn in the starting rotation for the next couple of months and already without Garrett Crochet in the bullpen for the entirety of the season.
Starting pitchers, perhaps excluding veterans like Giolito, Lynn and Dallas Keuchel, were already expected to be short on innings following a short spring training, placing an emphasis on the bullpen. Giolito’s relatively brief outing Friday was obviously unplanned, but it revealed the type of reliance on the relief corps that could be going on for a while across baseball.
“That’s what we’re here for,” Hendriks said. “We’re the janitors. We come in and clean up everybody else’s crap. That’s our job right now. We need to just suck it up and take whatever we need to get into a situation where the starters will pick us up later in the year.”
That team-first mentality is all well and good — heck, it’s necessary in this situation — but it’s also potentially dangerous. The White Sox needed a bevy of arms to get through Game 1. What happens the next 161?
They caught a break, it seemed, Friday, when an interference call at second base was upheld by replay review. That allowed Kendall Graveman, who’d already allowed one of Kyle Crick’s runners to score in the sixth, to escape without further damage and save enough bullets to throw a dominant seventh. But Aaron Bummer ran into trouble in the eighth, as did Hendriks, who blew the save, got a lead on an Andrew Vaughn homer in the ninth, then blew the save again before giving up the walk-off hit to Báez.
It all cost Hendriks 33 pitches in his first outing of the campaign, not a pitch count you’d like to associate your closer with in much more than a playoff game.
“We’ve prepared ourselves to get ready for 162,” Hendriks said. “And that may be us throwing in 80-something games, or maybe throwing us in 70-something games. That’s what spring training was for.
“I’m still good to go tomorrow and hopefully pick up the ball and we can get a win out of it, and we can wipe this taste out of our mouth.”
Hendriks is a bit of a superhuman in this regard, when it comes to workload. His bullpen mates are sure to have a similar attitude, but can they actually be expected to log that kind of time on the mound?
You can gripe about the White Sox offense not doing more damage after scoring three runs in the first two innings and chasing Tigers starter Eduardo Rodriguez early, and surely the team’s hitters would join you in your disappointment.
“We had our chances,” Pollock said. “We could have put them away. We could have tacked on a couple of runs and really made this game a bigger mountain for them to climb later in the game. But we didn’t.
“It happens. Doesn’t subtract from the confidence this offense has.”
With Tim Anderson back in the lineup Sunday, after his suspension is complete, that kind of thing might be more likely. Certainly that confidence, which probably was pretty high Friday, even without him, will grow with the uber-confident Anderson leading the charge.
But while everything that happened Friday might prove atypical once the marathon of 162 games is over, it was a perfect — and prompt — illustration of the challenges facing this White Sox team in its quest to, to quote Anderson, bring something cool to the South Side.
“Something cool” is a World Series championship. And to win it, there are big hurdles to clear. Injuries. Managing the pitching staff in a bizarre year. The Tigers.
The White Sox got their welcome to the 2022 they long forecasted, one that wouldn’t be quite as easy as 2021 was, and they got it fast.
Only 161 more of these to go.
“It was a wild game for the first game of the year. That’s baseball,” Pollock said. “This group, they’ve been around. They know it’s just one game. These games feel like they’re more than one, but they’re not.
“We’ll get back at it tomorrow.”
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