Sox start second half of title chase: 'We're not the hunted'

/ by Vinnie Duber
Presented By Nationwide Insurance Agent Jeff Vukovich

One thing is certain on the South Side:

The Chicago White Sox are on the hunt.

Who knows if it will be a true second-half mantra, plastered on T-shirts and wedged into fans' Twitter bios. But the White Sox, despite their first-place standing in the American League Central and despite their status as a true championship contender, are looking to be aggressive now that the All-Star break is history and there's just two and a half months remaining in the regular season.

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"I think the biggest attitude that we have, and the guys have voiced it, we're not the hunted," White Sox manager Tony La Russa said before his team played its first game of the second half Friday. "We're hunting wins, and we're going to go out there every series and hunt wins.

"And if the other team is hunting wins, too, that's great. They're supposed to be. But we're not defending anything. We're aggressively offending trying to get wins."

You rarely hear anyone say their organization is trying to be aggressively offensive, but La Russa's not talking about marketing here. He's got a law degree, remember, not a sheepskin in public relations.

The South Side skipper has been through this rodeo many times before, the three World Series rings on his fingers plenty of evidence that he knows what it takes to get to the promised land.


In hopes of adding a fourth to his impressive jewelry collection, he's pointing the White Sox in this direction, one that's not all that surprising but was long ago summed up by another Oakland sports legend:

Just win, baby.

"It doesn't matter who we are playing. The biggest thing is getting as many wins (as possible) and separating ourselves in the division," White Sox closer Liam Hendriks said. "You just want to make sure you don't lose the momentum you gained.

"We finished the first half strong, and we want to make sure we continue that on."

The White Sox put together a stellar first half, coming into the second half with the highest winning percentage in the AL and the biggest division lead in baseball. And doing what they did in that first half all over again is the ultimate, if obvious, key to being where they want to be when the regular season shifts to the postseason.

"They understand how we got here. And everything we did, we have to do (again)," La Russa said. "Can't take a day for granted, a lot of challenges ahead. You keep improving so you get to October peaking."

That's Hendriks' No. 1 goal, too.

It was Hendriks and the Oakland Athletics who snuffed out the White Sox championship hopes last year, a 2-1 series win in the AL Wild Card Series finishing off the South Siders' 3-10 slide to wrap the pandemic-shortened 2020 campaign. Hendriks did his thing, swearing and screaming and fist-pumping his way to the White Sox elimination.

Days ago, he was doing that on a national stage once more, this time as an All-Star for the White Sox, who got him to switch sides with a $54 million free-agent deal last winter.

While La Russa is quite literally the "ring" master, there are other imports who know what it takes to make a playoff run and can help cultivate the "hunter, not hunted" mentality in the clubhouse.

"I don't care who we win against. I don't care who it is. I don't care if we beat up on the teams below .500, as long as we get hot toward the end of the season," Hendriks said. "That's all that matters.

"At the end of the day, whether you win the division by one game or 40 games, it doesn't matter if you go into the playoffs on a little bit of a cold streak, as unfortunately happened here last year.

"You want to finish the season hot so you take that momentum into the playoffs."

Fans and other observers, of course, are less likely to ascribe to the "one game at a time" approach that's helped the White Sox get to this point, and a series to open the second half against the AL West-leading Houston Astros will jog memories of the four-game sweep the South Siders stumbled through last month, a series La Russa called one of just two bad ones his team played during the first half.


"They exposed us a little bit," White Sox shortstop Tim Anderson said. "Sometimes it's good to be exposed, you don't know how worse you can be. You try to be better. We have a better game plan. We'll go out and play hard and see what happens."

The White Sox run differential is one of baseball's highest. But their win total against teams with records north of .500 is one of the game's lowest.

Right now, that's not exactly a harbinger of October doom. It's still July, after all, and the White Sox are expecting reinforcements. Eloy Jiménez is in the middle of a rehab assignment at Triple-A Charlotte, and Luis Robert might not be too far behind. Then there's the trade deadline, where general manager Rick Hahn has promised to be aggressive in pursuing upgrades and additions, intent not to waste what he called a "sacred" chance to win the whole thing.

There's that word again. Aggressive. A signal that, yes, the White Sox are indeed on the hunt.

"Somebody said that the White Sox had to prove they could play in the dog days," La Russa said. "I'm a dog and cat lover.

"The best time of the year is playing in August and September when you have a chance for October. The worst time is playing when you don't have a chance.

"So the message is, 'We've earned this excitement, it's an edge for us. We're going to play for something. The adrenaline will be pumping. Just understand how we got here and what we have to do.'"

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