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We’ve been looking for the White Sox that were supposed to be all season long.
Looks like we found ‘em.
A 5-2 swing along the West Coast has the South Siders closing in on first place in the AL Central standings, two and a half games back, an outcome no one saw coming when they toiled six games back of the Guardians just 12 days ago.
Their offense missing for months, their pitching staff carrying the load but somewhat inconsistent itself, their manager and front office getting blasted on social media every second of every day. There was little reason to believe a late-season flip of the switch was coming. But it’s happened.
Forget Sunday’s clunker. The White Sox followed up a series win over the playoff-bound Mariners in Seattle by bashing the A’s brains in the first three games of this weekend’s set at the Coliseum, where the White Sox as a franchise have had so many bad moments and this core group saw its season end two years ago. Despite that history, everything came together this weekend, albeit against the worst team in the American League.
The White Sox’ bats exploded for 32 runs on a whopping 52 hits, winning three of the four contests, two of those games featuring 20-plus knocks. A deadly lineup finally looked the part, and with power to boot. Dylan Cease, Lucas Giolito and Lance Lynn were tremendous ahead of Johnny Cueto’s uncharacteristic outing Sunday, providing glimpses of a potentially dominant postseason pitching staff.
This unpredictable late-season era of good feelings has of course come without the two faces of the franchise, those titles owned for better or worse by Tim Anderson and Tony La Russa.
Anderson, the All-Star shortstop and embodiment of the attitude these White Sox were always supposed to have, has been sidelined for weeks while working his way back from a dislocated tendon in his finger. La Russa, the fan base’s long-targeted scapegoat for the team that failed to live up to its own championship-level expectations, was surprisingly removed from the dugout at the behest of his doctors, who despite allowing the skipper to reunite with his team Sunday have not yet given the green light for him to resume managerial duties. It was reported by the Associated Press that La Russa recently had a pacemaker installed. Speaking with reporters in Oakland, he said it was “uncertain” when he would return to the bench.
In the absence of La Russa and Anderson, Miguel Cairo has overseen a 9-4 stretch as acting manager, while Elvis Andrus, the veteran shortstop picked up off the scrap heap, has provided some of the biggest sparks, with three home runs on the road trip, including a pair against the A’s team that cut him loose.
Andrus’ power display, not to mention consistently solid play that’s been a breath of fresh air for White Sox fans, has brought about one of those “good problems to have” Rick Hahn is always talking about, folks wondering what will happen once Anderson makes his expected return at season’s end. Andrus has never played second base in his decade and a half as a big leaguer. That doesn’t seem to bother many fans, who are starting to see the benefits of keeping a hot bat in the lineup, defense be damned, after spending the summer griping about natural first basemen playing the outfield.
The fact that the White Sox have turned their season around so dramatically without their manager and without their top-of-the-order “igniter,” to borrow La Russa’s oft-used descriptor for Anderson – not to mention mostly without preseason MVP pick Luis Robert – is remarkable. Though anyone looking for causation here is probably coming to this unexpected September party with plenty of previously held bias, likely part of those “Fire Tony” chants well before there was a small sample size of success without him running the show.
No, the White Sox are not suddenly flourishing because La Russa’s health issues removed him from the team’s equation. Few will accept that, though, as so many fans were looking for La Russa’s removal prior, and fewer still will believe that he has had the consistent support of his players throughout his second go-round as the South Side skipper.
“We all love him,” José Abreu said through team interpreter Billy Russo last month. “His sense of unity and his sense of family is something that is around us, is around this team. It doesn’t matter what the people from the outside say, the fans can say whatever they want to. It doesn’t mean that what they say is true. We support Tony. We appreciate Tony and the effort he put to put us in the best position to succeed.”
“We’re here for him,” Lynn said after La Russa’s absence began. “We’re going to rally, do everything we can to win ballgames for him.”
Is there a different vibe in the White Sox’ clubhouse these days? Absolutely there is. But it’s not because they’re free of La Russa, it’s in spite of that fact. Winning, as they say, cures all. And while unfortunately that doesn’t apply to the field of medicine, allowing La Russa to earn the clean bill of health all should be hoping for, it does apply to the mood of a professional baseball team.
The White Sox spent months looking for enough wins to regain the mojo that made them so successful — and so much fun to watch — in recent seasons. Now that the wins have come, the attitude has come back with it. That “swagger” that Hahn said he wanted to see more of after his front office failed to do much of anything at the trade deadline? It’s back.
The White Sox are the White Sox again.
“The energy level is something we’ve been aspiring to get to,” Liam Hendriks told CHGO during the last home stand. “It’s just getting that jokingness back and being able to laugh and move around and be loud and be obnoxious.
“Everyone’s got a little bit more pep in the step. It’s one of those mantras of just, ‘Fuck it. Fuck it, let’s just go.’ This is who we are. We need to embrace who we are instead of trying to be that stoic, old-timey baseball player. Show some emotion, get angry and piss everybody off.”
That’s happened, and it should be no surprise that it took some sustained winning, some results at the plate and on the mound to get it to re-emerge.
Call it the calendar flipping to the final month of the regular season. Call it motivation spurred on by their manager’s health issues. Call it the Guardians and Twins failing to pull away at the top of the Central. Call it a complete freaking coincidence.
The “why” could be a Vegas-style buffet of any number of reasons.
The “what” is that the White Sox still have those lofty preseason goals right in front of them, as ridiculous as that would have been to say as recently as late August.
Without evidence that the team’s winning ways would ever return, fans had no reason to prep for October for much of the first five months of a maddeningly mediocre campaign. But suddenly, a second consecutive division crown there for the taking with 21 games to play — four of them against the Guardians and six against the sputtering, third-place Twins — the South Side can dream of playoff baseball for the third year in a row.
Considering that’s never happened before for this franchise and this fan base, the organizational demolition plenty were calling for — rooting for! — seems like it was a bit of an overreaction.
But instead of drawing up walking papers for anyone with an assigned parking spot at 35th and Shields, fans can start drawing up postseason rotations and Game 1 lineups.
Not that anything’s been secured, of course, and it wouldn’t surprise to see this division race, in which no one has pulled away all season, come down to the final days. The White Sox’ schedule will stay relatively easy; whenever they’re not playing their direct competition, they’ll see the bottom-of-the-barrel Rockies and Tigers. But hey, not everyone is the A’s.
Considering every turning point to this point in 2022 has been a mirage, it’s probably wise not to dive into this winning stretch head first just yet. It could turn out only to be more sand, as Sunday’s ugly loss reminded, with the White Sox’ defense shaky and the pitching staff atypically throttled.
But that big lesson learned from five months of disappointment can go hand in hand with what your eyes have told you over the past couple weeks, which is that these White Sox are finally looking the part, finally hitting the ball all over the yard and finally, as Hendriks put it to the Sun-Times’ Daryl Van Schouwen in Oakland, “yelling at each other.”
Ascribe it to La Russa’s departure all you want, it seems you’d be wrong. But you’d be right to point out and celebrate a different vibe on the South Side. It’s called winning. And because of it, the White Sox are having a ball.
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