In a best-case scenario, the White Sox would have swept the Guardians this week to get within a game of first place in the AL Central and set up a thrilling race to end the regular season.
The worst-case scenario was — you guessed it — what played out over the past three days at Guaranteed Rate Field.
Cleveland finished off a three-game sweep Thursday that not only buried the White Sox in the AL Central race, but also all but knocked them out of the playoff picture altogether with 12 games left in the season.
“It's tough,” said Gavin Sheets after the 4-2 loss, in which his solo home run supplied half the Sox’ offense.
“Obviously 162 doesn't come down to three games, but we knew what we had to do this series and weren’t able to do it.”
Cleveland could clinch the AL Central as soon as Sunday. Their magic number is five, which accounts for securing the tiebreaker (head-to-head record) over the Sox this week.
Meanwhile, the White Sox’ elimination number in the AL Wild Card race is seven. They're 6 1/2 games back of the Mariners for the final spot. They’re also 2 1/2 games behind the Orioles, the first team behind Seattle.
“It's frustrating. It's disappointing,” Sheets added of the sweep to Cleveland. “But it's not just this series. We had to play better all season.
“Obviously, this was a huge series, and we weren't able to pull through. They’re playing great baseball, but certainly it wasn't just the series.”
That moment of honesty from Sheets echoed one from teammate Lance Lynn a day prior, after Lynn was asked if it was surprising the Sox’ are as far back as they are so late in the season.
“Nothing surprises you. Lynn said Wednesday. “Especially when you play like sh-- all year. We've been six games out all year it seems like.
"We’ve still got some time left, but we put ourselves in a hole, that's for sure.”
Thursday’s loss dropped the Sox to seven games out of first — their biggest deficit this season. It’s no secret they’ve been wildly, if not maddeningly inconsistent the past five-plus months.
The AL Central preseason favorite picked my many to make a deep postseason run has held a share of first place in the division for eight days this season. The Sox have led the Central by no more than two games, and that was in the second week of the season.
One of their best stretches of the year has come the last three weeks, to the credit of acting manager Miguel Cairo, who has led the team to a 13-9 record in the absence of Tony La Russa.
“Since Aug. 31, they decide to play, they decide to battle,” Cairo said after Thursday’s loss. “They went and did everything and I’m proud.
“I’m proud of what they’ve been doing. Just because we lost this series, if you look back from Aug. 31 we won, what six series, and they fought. They give everything. We just fell short to a really good team. That team is really good."
The Guardians, to their credit, have taken full grasp of the division with a strong September (15-7). The Sox are mathematically alive, but it would take a miraculous finish over their final 12 games, and a ton of help, to secure a third straight postseason berth.
As solid as the Sox have played under Cairo, it's been too little, too late.
“We’ve had our spurts of playing really good baseball, but it just wasn't consistent enough,” Sheets said. “That's why I said it doesn't come down to these three games for sure.
“I think we all would agree that we should have played better baseball. It's frustrating.”