This AL Central race is going to be fun.
It looked like the Minnesota Twins might have blitzed right past the White Sox in the season’s first weekend, issuing a 14-2 clubbing on their way out of Chicago in the decisive third game of that series. The White Sox went on to Northeast Ohio and dropped the first two of that three-game set against the Cleveland Indians, and a 1-4 start threw some chilly Great Lakes water on the preseason thought of the South Siders running with the class of the division in this season’s 60-game sprint to October.
But the White Sox turned their 1-4 start around with a six-game win streak. And after a 2-0 nail-biter of a win over the Indians on Friday night that reshuffled the standings, the Pale Hose have now won their last five games against division foes, including a pair against these Clevelanders.
The intensity’s been there all week. After a sweep of the Kansas City Royals, the first three of the White Sox four games against the Milwaukee Brewers had a distinct playoff-style feel to them, well pitched, closely decided contests that struck as the most intense games the White Sox have played in years.
Be it the compressed nature of this season’s schedule or the fact that these White Sox are finally equipped to compete for a division title, this is unlike anything that’s graced the South Side in some time.
“We're treating every game like a must-win,” White Sox starting pitcher Dylan Cease said Friday night. “These games definitely don't have the same feeling as Game 15 of a 162-game season. We're coming to the ballpark to win every day."
When it comes to the Twins, atop the Central standings with 10 wins — one of only two major league squads to hit double digits to this point, even with back-to-back defeats at the hands of the Pittsburgh Pirates and Royals — it seems the White Sox will have to win a few more home run derbies the likes of which we saw in that opening weekend.
But runs have been somewhat scarce for the White Sox after they scored a combined 20 runs and banged out a total of 35 hits in winning the final two games of that series last weekend in Kansas City. They’ve scored just eight times in their last four games combined. There’s more than one way to win a game, of course, and as injuries continue to make the White Sox dugout look like the Tune Squad bench late in that game against the Monstars, the South Siders have figured out a few others besides blowing up the scoreboard.
Friday night’s playoff feel brought the Indians’ sensational pitching staff to Guaranteed Rate Field, and Aaron Civale was just about as good as he was against the White Sox last week in Cleveland. He didn’t pile up the strikeouts this time, but he still pitched seven innings of one-run ball, the lone run he gave up coming home on a first-inning double-play grounder.
Cease, somewhat miraculously, countered with five shutout innings of his own despite putting nearly the entire city of Cleveland on base. He walked five guys, including issuing four leadoff walks, hit another and allowed a couple of hits. Thankfully for Cease and the White Sox, though, he also came up with multiple clutch, inning-ending double-play balls, and the defense was excellent behind him and a trio of relievers, the first two of which had as much trouble keeping the bases clear as Cease did.
You want playoff-style drama? Scatter the bases with potential runs every inning and watch the pitchers dance their way out of one jam after another.
That’s not going to fly on a regular basis, obviously, but it sure made for some heart-pounding baseball, which is — as anyone who was pulling double duty with playoff hockey Friday night knows — fun.
“I can't expect those kinds of results if I'm going to have that many base runners all the time,” Cease said. “Fortunately, we were able to get out of here with a 'W,' but it's not something that's going to be sustainable. So I have to do a better job of getting ahead and not doing that.”
The onslaught of high-caliber Cleveland pitching continues the rest of the weekend, and who knows if the White Sox will be able to solve it as they barely did Friday. Zach Plesac, who stymied the White Sox with 11 strikeouts in eight shutout innings last week, is up Saturday. Then it’s a heck of a pitching matchup Sunday, with Lucas Giolito facing off against current AL Cy Young front-runner Shane Bieber, who’s struck out 35 hitters in his first three starts of the season.
That game ought to be another dandy, and with a frequently showcased rivalry between the Cubs and St. Louis Cardinals waved off this weekend, the White Sox will step into the nationally televised spotlight Sunday night, the perfect spot for such a pitching matchup and a division race that’s heating up like this one is. The White Sox swapped spots with the Indians on Friday, into second place and two games back of the Twins. The Indians are just two and a half games behind the division leaders.
“Both of those teams are very good clubs,” White Sox outfielder Adam Engel said of the Twins and Indians. “Two totally different makeups, they win games differently. We have a pretty balanced attack ourselves. It’s fun playing good baseball against good teams.
“The Indians, it seems like every time they come to town or we go to Cleveland, we are facing some pretty good arms. Makes it fun. You just have to stay disciplined, stay really focused in your work. It always feels like you’re going to be part of a good baseball game.
“Those are two tough teams, and hopefully we can keep playing them well.”
Obviously, everything’s felt different this season. There are no fans in the stands, COVID-19 is constantly threatening the completion of the campaign, and a brief ramp up to Opening Day has made for a high number of injuries across the league.
But there’s a different feeling on the South Side, too, for much more positive reasons. This team has been talking about its high expectations for months, and they’ve got a roster that looks capable of living up to them. While an expanded playoff field gives the White Sox a pretty good chance of reaching the postseason, they’ve still got their eyes on the biggest prizes, and the first one of those is the Central crown.
They’ve played just 14 games. But it sure feels like a pennant race.
“I don’t remember ever really watching scoreboards so closely as a team through the first couple of weeks in the season,” Engel said. “We come in off the field and we want to see what’s going on around the league, or we’re announcing what scores are postgame for different teams. You control what you can control, and you want to win as many games as you can. But we’re all keeping our eyes on the scoreboard, and I’m sure it’s like that league-wide.
“Everybody kind of feels like they’re in it right now, and 60 games, this is going to be a heck of a season. I’m excited that we’re playing good baseball right now. Hopefully we can keep it going.”
It bothers Eloy Jiménez that his defense has been repeatedly called into question.
Thankfully for him, he was busy playing last night and not scrolling through White Sox Twitter.
Without question, his latest misadventure in left field was a glaring one. He thought Christian Yelich’s fifth-inning fly ball Thursday night was heading to the warning track, he said Friday. Instead, it wound up near the foul line. The ball dropped past Jiménez’s outstretched arm, and he tumbled into the netting and into the seats as Yelich rounded the bases for an inside-the-park home run.
The highlight-reel nature of the play didn’t help. The fact that it tied the game and kicked off a four-run fifth inning in an eventual Brewers win over the White Sox was worse.
One embarrassing play in one game in one sophomore season can be forgiven. It’s the piling up of such misplays that is sticking in the minds of fans and observers, sparking questions about whether Jiménez can stick in left field long term.
Those questions are valid and those critiques are certainly allowed, manager Rick Renteria acknowledged after Thursday’s game and again before Friday’s.
But Jiménez admitted to being bothered by them and stuck to his pledge of defensive improvement he offered up back in January, when he greeted the idea of moving to designated hitter with a “f**k that.”
“It bothers me a little bit. But it’s part of this,” Jiménez said Friday. “People don’t think I can play defense. For me, it’s a challenge, and I know I can play.
“I’ve made a lot of progress because I work hard every single day. I try to be one of the best outfielders, not just one of the best hitters. I want to be a complete player and a nine-inning player.”
Certain fans will jump to the conclusion that they’ve seen enough, that improvement just isn’t happening. But it’s important to remember that improvement can take time. After all, Jiménez is just 23, with not a full season’s worth of major league games under his belt.
Just look elsewhere on the White Sox roster and see guys who overhauled their own games and corrected seemingly enormous issues. Lucas Giolito walked more batters than any pitcher in the American League in 2018. He was an All Star in 2019. Yoán Moncada struck out 217 times in 2018. He’s the best all-around player on the team right now.
Why can’t Jiménez make a similar jump if he keeps doing the kind of work he’s vowed to do?
“Sometimes we make decisions a little prematurely on individuals,” Renteria said. “I could be wrong. I'm not perfect. For anyone in the arena that thinks I'm that egotistical, I'm not really. I'm not really. I'm more of an optimist as opposed to a pessimist, and I believe my optimism is what drives me to try to help these guys excel.
“I'm expecting that, over time, Eloy will fall into a good category on the defensive side. And if it doesn't, we'll find ways to continue to augment his playing time out there.
“We're going to continue to do what we can and try to help him become the best outfielder he possibly can be. He always walks by and I always tell him, ‘Nine innings,’ because he doesn't like coming out (of the game for a defensive replacement).
“He wants to prove to everybody that he can play that outfield position very, very well. He's a driven kid. Time will tell us, and hopefully we make the right decision with him.”
Jiménez is so important to the White Sox lineup and to their long-term goal of contending for championships on an annual basis, that there’s plenty of validity to the argument that continued misadventures in left field could threaten his ability to stick in that lineup. Already, he’s been hurt on misplays three times, costing him games each time.
But not only does Jiménez’s youth provide ample evidence that he’s not yet a finished product — even while he blasts balls out to center field with his thunderous bat — but there are simply not many other places to put him. First base is spoken for with José Abreu under contract for at least three more years, and designated hitter would figure to be claimed, for the long term, once Andrew Vaughn arrives from the minor leagues. Plus, if you move Jiménez, you’re looking at a hole in left field without an easy internal fix.
And so the White Sox will lean on Renteria’s optimism and the great strides they’ve seen from some of their other young stars as Jiménez continues to gain experience playing left field at the major league level.
And Jiménez will keep working.
“Great players have bad days,” he said, “so for me, I’m just learning from that and just forget about it and keep moving forward.”