CLEVELAND — The Chicago White Sox just did something they hadn't done in 13 years, winning the American League Central crown Thursday.
They just did something they hadn't done ever, reaching the postseason in back-to-back seasons.
But for a team that set clear expectations during the spring that anything short of winning a World Series would count as a disappointment, Thursday's big-time accomplishment was just another step in a much longer journey.
"We want to go and get the whole thing," White Sox starting pitcher Lucas Giolito said Thursday in an interview with NBC Sports Chicago.
Giolito was the victor in the White Sox' lone playoff victory last fall, taking a perfect game into the seventh inning in Game 1 of the AL Wild Card Series against the Oakland Athletics. He was dazzling, he was electric, he went into what Tim Anderson called "bully stage" in showing that the White Sox were on the rise.
They believe now, of course, that they have fully risen, having spent nearly the entire 2021 season in first place in the Central by a wide margin. Even a second half that's seen them play just one win better than .500 has done nothing to diminish the certainty that they would be division champions. Now that they've officially printed the T-shirts and hats to signify that status, however, the focus shifts to the biggest prize.
So can they win it?
Even while their playoff fate is admittedly mysterious, World Series veterans like Dallas Keuchel and Yasmani Grandal discussing how tricky it is to predict what awaits in October considering the inconsistencies of the last two months, the White Sox players who were talking about a ring during spring training have not shifted their expectations one bit.
"(This team is) capable of winning a World Series, for sure," Giolito said. "The talent level is ridiculous. We had to battle a lot this year, with the injuries and unfortunate things happening left and right. We've gotten through those battles. The last month or few weeks have been a little rough, a little off and on, but I think our head is in the perfect place going into this final stretch."
"We've shown that we can hit, we've shown that we can pitch, we've shown that we can defend. And not every team can say that, not every team can say that with confidence," White Sox closer Liam Hendriks told NBC Sports Chicago earlier this month. "Any one of our five starters can go out and throw a no-hitter any day. Every one of our guys can go up there and have a three-, four-home run game. ... It's 1 through 9 (in the lineup), it's 1 through 5 (in the rotation), it's 1 through 8 in the bullpen. We've got guys out there that can handle any situation."
The White Sox have mystified observers with their inconsistency, looking like world-beaters one day and head-scratchers the next. The offense, in particular, has been the root cause of that inconsistency while the starting rotation has spent much of the campaign in domination mode. But late-season health questions surrounding Carlos Rodón have spurred concerns over that part of the roster, too.
So long we've heard players, Hendriks chief among them, discussing the importance of peaking at the end of the regular season. It hasn't played out that way to this point, with manager Tony La Russa describing the team as "treading water" in recent weeks and months.
But all along, the reasons behind the continued confidence have been there. Take the division-clinching victory Thursday in Cleveland, which saw what was expected to be a potent White Sox offense explode for four homers and seven runs in the first two innings. Anderson belted a pair, Luis Robert drilled one, and Eloy Jiménez crushed a ball to left field, a reminder that, hey, these inconsistent White Sox hitters could do jaw-dropping damage if they put it all together on a regular basis.
A starting rotation featuring Giolito and Lance Lynn at the top should frighten any opposing lineup, and it'll be all the deeper if Rodón can join Dylan Cease behind them. Hendriks is a deserving All Star at the back end of the bullpen, and though Craig Kimbrel has stumbled often since joining the team as its top trade-deadline acquisition, he still boasts a track record as one of baseball's all-time great relief pitchers.
The pieces have been there. Putting them together has been a tall task in the second half, but with the chase for the division title over, maybe the last week of the season can feature the peaking Hendriks has hyped.
"I think when we play the game we want to play, I don't think there's anybody that stands in our way," White Sox reliever Aaron Bummer told NBC Sports Chicago earlier this week. "And it's just a matter of being able to do that as much as we can. If we play our game, more often than not we're going to be where we want to be at the end of the day, and that's being the last team standing."
This, of course, is what the White Sox' rebuilding project was leading to: status as a true World Series contender.
Though the winning got started a season ago, the young, inexperienced team admittedly took its foot off the gas and stumbled to a first-round exit. La Russa, along with veterans like Hendriks and Lynn and Yasmani Grandal, are here to make sure that doesn't happen. The guys who went through it last year are dedicated to not letting it happen again.
Now, they believe they're better equipped to avoid the letdown and to make a deep October run.
"I'm excited this year because I think we have a better overall team going into playoffs," Giolito said. "Last year, it was just that little taste, but it leaves you wanting more. And that's kind of the feeling we have, not just me but the team as a whole. ... Last year was fun, but it was short lived."
It might be a mystery as to how the games will turn out — Grandal admitted to NBC Sports Chicago's Maddie Lee last weekend that he's not a fortune teller — but the confidence level of this White Sox team remains ridiculously high. When Anderson got off his home-run schneid Thursday, hitting his first long ball since Aug. 20, he showed the same kind of excitement that made his walk-off blast in the Field of Dreams game the season's signature moment.
"We're confident bordering on arrogant," Hendriks said. "And that's something that you can't teach. That's something that is ingrained in the personality of the club. ... I think TA has a lot to do with that.
"In a five-game (playoff) series, we could be down 0-2. But ... it doesn't matter, we're going to win the next three. And that's the kind of aura I'm getting from this club, and that's the kind of confidence we have in everything."
The division is won. But it's not the end, not by a long shot. The goal is the ring, the goal is the trophy.
The White Sox are officially a part of October. So bring it on.
"I think we can do anything. I think we've got such a skillset and a mindset that I think, once tasked, we're going to be able to go in there headfirst and ready to attack it," White Sox rookie Andrew Vaughn told NBC Sports Chicago earlier this month. "It's the ability we have to lift each other up. And I think that's going to help us. It has helped us this whole year.
"The year's definitely not over, and hopefully the fun's just getting started here come October."