HOUSTON — The Chicago White Sox have had the World Series on their minds since the spring.
But it was never going to be easy.
Going down 2-0 in the American League Division Series with a 9-4 loss Friday afternoon, the White Sox found out exactly how hard it is. They found out exactly what a championship-caliber team looks like and how hard it is to be better than one.
They found out how hard it is to be better than the Houston Astros.
"They were really good," White Sox manager Tony La Russa said. "I thought we played really well, too. But they played better."
The Astros ambushed Lance Lynn and the White Sox in Game 1, while Lance McCullers Jr. dominated the bats, not leaving much of a winnable feeling after the early innings. In Game 2, the teams were tied in the seventh inning, allowing the White Sox and their fans watching at home to dream about evening up the series.
But the Astros poured five runs on Aaron Bummer and Craig Kimbrel in the bottom of the seventh, showing the White Sox how steep the challenge of reaching baseball's mountaintop is.
"They've had a lot of experience in the playoffs and they've made deep runs, as we've seen in the past, and that goes a long way. You're not going to intimidate a team like that, you're not going to put pressure on a team like that," White Sox catcher Yasmani Grandal said earlier this week. "All they're waiting for is for you to make a mistake and they're going to take over."
Throughout Game 2, the Astros looked like the superior club, because they didn't make any of those mistakes. While Lucas Giolito walked five and the bullpen was beaten by hits small and big and White Sox outfielders missed a couple balls, the Astros played immaculate defense, kept the White Sox off the board after the fifth inning, mashed a couple Kimbrel pitches for game-breaking hits and just plain hit it where the South Side defense wasn't.
They did everything required of a championship team because they know what's required of a championship team.
White Sox shortstop Tim Anderson sat in front of the microphone before the series began and declared that the Astros' bountiful playoff experience didn't matter in this matchup with the White Sox. But hidden in the question of whether the Astros' past postseason wins made a difference was the idea — nay, the fact — that the Astros have so often played well enough to rack up a whole bunch of postseason wins.
And that's what they're doing now.
The defensive excellence is what really stood out in Game 2. Carlos Correa and José Altuve made a couple brilliant plays in the first to keep a White Sox rally to just one run. Altuve came up with a couple other sensational plays at second base, with Yuli Gurriel and Alex Bregman making terrific stops on smashed balls down the baselines.
And the game's biggest defensive play came in the seventh, when right fielder Kyle Tucker snagged a well hit Grandal drive with a couple runners on to preserve a tie ahead of the Astros' five-run outburst in the bottom of the inning.
That's par for the course, though, for a championship-caliber Astros team. Astros manager Dusty Baker wasn't even surprised by the display.
"Every great team I've been on, we played outstanding defense," he said. "These guys take pride in defense, so that's something that I think is overlooked by a lot of clubs, but never on my club.
"I'm more surprised when we don't make the plays. ... You have to take probably more pride in defense than you do on offense because it's not fun. The fun part's hitting."
Well, the Astros do that part pretty well, too. They came up with clutch hits when they were needed, be they ground balls up the middle or a two-run blast into the Crawford Boxes. They scored nine runs Friday after scoring six Thursday, tripling the number of runs the White Sox scored through the series' first two games.
It's not that the White Sox played particularly poorly Friday. They weren't perfect, certainly, and La Russa was roasted on Twitter for every little thing that didn't go the White Sox' way. Indeed, some of his decisions deserved some explaining.
But here's a thought: Maybe the Astros are just really, really good. Maybe the Astros are just plain better than the White Sox.
The White Sox need to elevate their game, not because they're playing in a way that warrants a swift end to their playoff stay, but because they'll need to be really good in order to beat the Astros three times in a row to keep playing past next week.
Giolito pointed out that the White Sox have registered three consecutive wins this season, making such a thing happening again not completely out of the realm of possibility. But in nine games against the Astros in 2021, they've won only two.
"I give our club a lot of credit," La Russa said. "We were right there. We played as hard as we could and good as we could."
Maybe that's just not good enough for the White Sox to be better than the Astros.