The White Sox, bedeviled by injuries, struggling to get their offense out of hibernation and sitting at .500 despite their World Series expectations, are now without the one person they simply cannot be without.
A week after silencing the Yankee Stadium crowd, days after the White Sox put up billboards all along the expressway trumpeting him as “the face of baseball,” Tim Anderson strained his groin while fielding a ground ball in his typically highlight-reel fashion. He went down on the grass in shallow center field in obvious pain. He was helped to the dugout and then the clubhouse by a pair of trainers.
The White Sox won the game, making multiple comebacks in a 12-inning marathon against the Crosstown-rival Cubs, and afterward, Tony La Russa described the result as making a difference moving forward.
But what they lost makes a much bigger, potentially season-defining impact.
“I don’t want to (go into what Anderson means to the team) because then it really strains your optimism to say we’re going to be OK,” La Russa said. “This guy is as good as any player in the game at that position, in all regards. And his influence, all the intangibles he brings in that clubhouse.
“We’re not nearly as good without him, but we’re going to have to be good enough to win.”
The good news is that La Russa and the White Sox expect Anderson’s absence to last only three weeks, and fears for the worst were well eased with that news out of Toronto on Tuesday.
But Anderson is everything to these White Sox, and even in a season where the offense isn’t crippled by an inability to score runs, he’s what La Russa has repeatedly called “the igniter” at the top of the lineup. An All Star, a batting champion, he is one of the most productive hitters on the team and makes all the other hitters more productive by hitting at a ridiculously high clip and setting the table as the leadoff man.
In a year when the offense is crippled by an inability to score runs, though, his absence is vastly more problematic.
Anderson is batting .356 and getting on base at a .393 clip, the only White Sox batter with an average north of .285 and the only White Sox batter with an on-base percentage above .328. He’s scored more than 14 percent of the team’s 167 runs, which is the third lowest total in baseball.
It was a pressing question – a critical one – how this offense was going to turn things around with Anderson in the lineup. Now that he’s out of it for the next few weeks, that question becomes even more difficult to answer.
Unsurprisingly, the answer, even as he’s not able to contribute himself, might lie with No. 7.
“Keep going. You can’t really stop,” Anderson told CHGO before Sunday’s game, before his injury became this team’s top headline. “You’ve just got to keep trying to do your homework, keep coming to the ballpark every day and keep trying to get better. I think that’s as simple as it gets. Dumb it down, try not to think too much about it. Take it a day at a time.
“Everybody’s working. Everybody’s trying to get better. It’s not like we’re trying to go out there and strike out or do bad. … It’s just one of those times right now, one of those moments. We hope for it to get better, but who knows. All we can do is continue to keep working, take it a day at a time and keep it simple and easy and keep going.”
That advice was given before he went down. Now Anderson’s words are all the more important for his White Sox teammates to take to heart.
But even if the club’s effort is not in question, even if players are being acknowledged for their hard work, the results are what the results are. The team has gone two months now without finding much in the way of offensive success, even as the pitching has been generally great.
The team’s braintrust has pointed at the roster, laden with talented players who have been to All-Star Games, won Silver Sluggers and even been crowned MVP of the American League.
How could these guys not show up eventually?
“We’ve seen this group for a while now, and we know the type of at-bats they’re capable of putting together,” Rick Hahn said Saturday. “We’ve seen games in the last week where we’ve had a more patient approach and spit on balls out of the zone and taken our walks, and as a result, damage followed. That’s more of who we are.
“It’s understandable when, for whatever variety of reasons – the spring, weird start – guys start pressing a little bit when they look up there and see the numbers a little below what they’re accustomed to seeing. The guys on a whole taking a step back and stringing together good at-bats they’re capable of doing will rectify any offensive shortcomings we’ve had, and the numbers will follow.”
OK. When? And from who?
Hahn, of course, believes it will happen with everyone, and no White Sox employee’s insistence that there’s plenty of baseball left to play is incorrect. The season is just around third of the way finished, and being .500 on Memorial Day is no unconquerable barrier to reaching not only the playoffs but the World Series.
But without Anderson to power this team, to stir the drink, to drive the bus, who’s going to do it?
Because to this point in the 2022 season, no one else has hit with much consistency.
Luis Robert would figure to be the main candidate to take the reins of this offense, with everything he’s able to do on the field. He’s finished with a stay on the COVID-related injured list but was still out of the lineup for the start of a three-game series in Toronto. He too, though, has had his own stretches of looking flummoxed at the plate this year.
José Abreu has looked far more like himself of late after a prolonged early season slump. Yasmani Grandal walked four times in the last three games, that thing he does when the hits aren’t falling – enough to be the White Sox’ first leadoff man during Anderson’s IL stay. Andrew Vaughn has shown flashes. Eloy Jiménez is still working his way back from his own significant injury. Yoán Moncada is batting .133 and still recovering from a quadriceps issue.
Hahn and La Russa have continued to profess their faith that these guys cannot continue to hit so far from what the “back of their baseball card” says they will.
Anderson, meanwhile, says forget about the baseball card. And his message – in this one interview and what might be hitting the ears of his teammates while he cheer-leads from the dugout – is perhaps the only path the White Sox can take that still ends in their lofty preseason goals.
“I don’t think (about) all that. None of that really matters, the baseball card. It’s what you can do that day to help your team win,” he said. “Try not to be selfish, because you can’t win a championship by yourself. Really try not to worry about the back of a card and worry about the overall picture.
“There’s really nothing to stress about. We’re just playing baseball, we’re just playing at the highest level and people expect certain things. … You can’t lose faith. Once you lose faith, then we’ve lost. So you’ve got to keep faith and keep believing that things are going to get better.”
Certainly Anderson’s injury would be a giant example of the opposite, how things can get worse.
White Sox fans were already way past their boiling points given the record and the lack of offensive juice from a team with such high preseason expectations. Indeed, a struggling lineup losing its most (and only) productive piece would seem to signal darker days ahead, especially as the schedule toughens to the tune of the Blue Jays, the Rays, the Dodgers, the Astros and the Angels before the end of June.
What can brighten the outlook for this team, then, if anything?
They’ll need to return to the 2021 playbook, for one, and get contributions from fill-in players, the guys who aren’t gracing the cover of the media guide or have their pictures plastered all over the outside of Guaranteed Rate Field. The Brian Goodwins, Jake Lambs and Yermín Mercedeses kept the White Sox afloat through major injuries last season. Perhaps the likes of Adam Engel, Gavin Sheets and Jake Burger – who delivered a walk-off win with a 12th-inning base hit Sunday – can play those roles in 2022.
The pitching, obviously, needs to remain at the high level it’s been at throughout the season to this point. Lucas Giolito, Michael Kopech and Dylan Cease – who allowed nothing more than an unearned run in his seven innings of work Sunday – have indicated this could be a dominant rotation. Lance Lynn’s coming return from the injured list (he pitched three scoreless innings in a rehab start Sunday) will add to that idea. And the bullpen is still well loaded at the back end, even as Joe Kelly deals with a hamstring injury.
But even as Anderson can’t be doing his thing in the leadoff spot or at shortstop, it’s his attitude – the defining voice of this team and organization – that could hold the key to digging out of what plenty surely see as a bottomless pit.
“We know we haven’t been going the way that we would love it to,” he said. “But you can’t get your eyes off the prize, because anything can happen. We can turn it on just like that.
“You always got to have that (confidence). If not, you lose. Kind of like your faith, same thing. We’ve got to keep that confidence at an all-time high. Got to feel like you’re the man every day, that nobody can beat you. They may beat us, but they didn’t beat us.
“Just being in that mind frame, that’s going to keep you where you need to be.”
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