White Sox manager Tony La Russa made his stance clear even before the Astros toppled his team’s sky-high playoff hopes in the American League Division Series.
“You celebrate a division championship,” La Russa said, pointing to the length and toils of the regular season. “Don’t anybody try to disrespect you and say it wasn’t important because the opposite is true.”
The Hall of Fame skipper, who has been at the helm for three World Series titles and six pennants, would know. But the White Sox didn’t initiate a rebuild five years ago just to win the AL Central, as they did this year. That was the first step.
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Now that this White Sox team has made franchise history with two consecutive playoff berths, but also sustained back-to-back first-round exits (in the 2020 Wild Card Series and 2021 ALDS), it’s a good time to take stock of lessons from this October.
“We know what the ultimate goal is,” White Sox shortstop Tim Anderson said last week. “It’s always going to be motivation to get back to what we’re trying to do.”
The organization’s own evaluation of its postseason performance, as well as what awaited the Astros in the ALCS after eliminating the White Sox, will influence how it approaches the offseason. Here are five things the White Sox can take from the 2021 playoffs:
1. Last year’s playoff experience wasn’t comparable.
Last year, most of the White Sox roster was experiencing the postseason for the first time. That wasn’t the case this season. But the 2020 atmosphere in fan-less three-game Wild Card Series in Oakland couldn’t compare to the packed houses the 2021 ALDS brought.
The White Sox were playing in the club’s first ALDS since 2008. When the Astros won the series 3-1, they advanced to their fifth consecutive ALCS.
“Last two years, we haven’t gotten the results that we were looking for,” White Sox first baseman José Abreu said through team interpreter Billy Russo last week. “But we’ve been gaining that experience that is going to put us in a way better position for next year hopefully to get deeper into the postseason.
“I know that this team has a lot of talent, a lot of young talent. That combination, that talent with experience we’ve been gaining the last two years during the postseason, it’s going to be a key factor for us moving forward.”
2. The starting rotation could use reinforcement.
The AL’s best regular season rotation (3.57 ERA) didn’t look it in the postseason. In 12 1/3 innings, White Sox starters combined to give up 14 runs. Only Lucas Giolito pitched past the fourth inning.
Health was certainly a factor. Carlos Rodón, who the Astros had no answers against in June and July, was battling shoulder soreness and fatigue late in the season and into October. Though he revved up to 99 mph in his single playoff outing, he wasn’t quite his old self and didn’t pitch until Game 4.
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The Astros are a prime example of how much of a difference an injury to one starting pitcher can make. Lance McCullers, who delivered the first and final blows to the White Sox in the ALDS, has been out for the ALCS with a flexor pronator muscle strain.
In four games against the rest of the Astros’ pitching staff, the Red Sox have set records, becoming the first team to hit three grand slams in one series. The ALCS is tied at two games apiece entering Game 5 on Wednesday.
Both examples, of Rodón and McCullers, show the importance of starting pitching depth. And as Rodón enters free agency, the White Sox have to decide whether to make a bid for him to return.
2. Pretty good defense isn’t good enough.
“They made a lot of good defensive plays. We made a lot of good defensive plays,” La Russa said after a 9-4 Game 2 loss to the Astros.
He was right; the White Sox had made some key double plays. But the Astros’ defensive highlight reel was longer.
In addition to an infield that covered a jaw-dropping amount of ground, one of the game’s biggest momentum shifts came on a line drive to the outfield. White Sox catcher Yasmani Grandal smoked what looked like a sure base hit into the gap, but right fielder Kyle Tucker made a leaping catch to stifle what could have been another comeback push.
By contrast, in the bottom half of the same inning, Leury García moved from second base to right field. As the Astros began to mount a rally, Carlos Correa smashed a line drive directly at García, the toughest kind of contact to read as an outfielder. García took a bad route to the ball, and the Astros scored two more runs in what would become a five-run frame.
The White Sox had tried to strengthen their defense at the trade deadline by bringing in gold glove second baseman César Hernández. But the move backfired when bringing him into Game 2 forced hot-hitting García into right field.
4. Trade deadline moves didn’t pan out.
In retrospect, the White Sox’ most successful trade deadline deal this year was the one that went down with the lease fanfare at the time. They traded minor league pitcher Bailey Horn to the Cubs for setup man Ryan Tepera. And Tepera went on to be one of the White Sox’ most reliable relievers in the second half of the season, though he did cause quite the stir in the postseason.
That’s not to criticize the White Sox’ deadline activity. Acquiring Hernández and closer Craig Kimbrel garnered well-deserved praise. But both struggled down the stretch.
Kimbrel and Hernández’ 2022 club options, which made them especially intriguing deadline targets for the White Sox a few months ago, now present nagging questions for the White Sox’ offseason.
5. Bounce-backs are good; staying ahead is better.
Even after a 6-1 Game 1 loss, La Russa found a silver lining in the way the game ended.
“We're going to play nine innings,” he said then. “It's more fun when you're got something rolling, but you've really got to dig deep when you're not. One run on the board, but we made some things happen. Yeah, they made good pitches. I think it just solidifies within our club we played hard nine innings, and they beat us, but that's what we do.”
Despite a pair of lopsided scores, the White Sox did stage comeback pushes in the firs two games of the ALDS. Then, they showed their resilience by overcoming a short start by Dylan Cease to beat the Astros 12-6 in Game 3 at Guaranteed Rate Field, avoiding a sweep.
A final comeback proved too much for the White Sox, however, with their backs against the wall in Game 4, for the second consecutive contest. Dropping the first two games at Houston had put them in quite the bind – a mistake the other Sox from Boston didn’t make in the ALCS.
“What we need to do in the offseason in order to get better next year, just keep working,” Abreu said. “… A World Series title is going to be there, but we need to keep working and keep working hard.”