The White Sox had big preseason expectations. They planned to reach the playoffs.
But while a breakout 2019 for the young core and a busy winter by Rick Hahn’s front office made them look capable of meeting those expectations, they still need to prove they can do it. After all, before this truncated 2020 season started, the last real baseball they played wrapped up an 89-loss campaign.
Well, after taking two of three in a weekend series against the Crosstown-rival Cubs, division leaders and the owners of one of baseball’s best records, what have the White Sox proven?
“We’re dangerous,” Danny Mendick said before Sunday’s 2-1 loss.
You better believe it.
In the first two games, the White Sox unleashed a power barrage on Cubs pitching, hitting a total of 11 homers. That number hit an even dozen with José Abreu’s second-inning dinger Sunday, his fourth home run in as many plate appearances, the first White Sox hitter to do such a thing.
The offense stopped there Sunday, but the White Sox continued to show their playoff possibilities. Dylan Cease pitched a very good game, one Rick Renteria evaluated as one of the young right-hander’s finest in his big league career. Cease held the Cubs to just two runs, both coming on a sixth-inning homer by Kyle Schwarber. He danced his way out of a couple jams, most notably one in the fifth, when the Cubs loaded the bases with nobody out. Cease got a strikeout and a double-play ground ball to end the threat and maintain a 1-0 lead.
Considering how much of the White Sox 2020 hopes rests on the shoulders of pitchers like Cease and Reynaldo López, their efforts this weekend fuel the idea that they could deepen a White Sox rotation topped by a pair of dependable arms in Lucas Giolito and Dallas Keuchel.
The White Sox tried to scratch across a run after Yu Darvish, who threw a dominant seven innings, finally departed. They loaded the bases with a two-out rally in the ninth inning, Yoán Moncada grounding out to end the game.
There was situational tension between two good teams. If this wasn’t the most unusual season baseball’s ever seen and the stands were packed with fans of both sides, it would have felt like one of the bigger moments this Crosstown rivalry has seen.
“Watching the eighth and the ninth, when we had guys on, too, you could feel that intensity,” Cease said. “We’re treating every game like it’s must-win, so it definitely has that feel.
“I felt like we were in it, in every pitch. I think we’re a team that needs to be taken seriously. And I think they’re a great team, too. It’s one of those series where we had two big teams clash with each other, and it was a lot of fun to watch.”
Indeed, these might have been the three most meaningful matchups between the White Sox and Cubs since the 1906 World Series. The six contests between the two this season represent 10 percent of each team’s schedule in a year where every game means so much. And finally, both teams are competing for the same thing: a championship. Now. Simultaneously.
Recent Crosstown series have been useful for little more than comparing where the White Sox were heading in their rebuilding process with where the Cubs have already been in theirs. This year, with the White Sox climbing out of rebuilding mode and into contending mode, this weekend served as a measuring stick to see where the White Sox stand in their quest to reach October and make some noise once they get there.
“It’s going to be fun to play against them because that’s the type of team that has played in the playoffs in the past,” outfielder Eloy Jiménez said Friday, before the series started. “They have a really good record, we have a really good record, and I think we are going to enjoy this this year.
“We are going to play hard like always. We are just going to go and enjoy the game, like we always do. And I think we can show people we can compete in the playoffs, too.”
It’s hard to argue that the White Sox didn’t show that this weekend, putting on a pair of “light shows” Friday and Saturday and then playing a tight, intense game Sunday. And the opponent mattered.
The White Sox entered the weekend on a five-game winning streak, but four of those wins came against a Detroit Tigers team that lost 114 games last season. They won just three of the nine games they played against the class of the AL Central, the Minnesota Twins and Cleveland Indians. But the hot-hitting ways they started against Detroit came with them to the North Side. And while the offense got all the glory, the pitching was pretty fantastic this weekend. Keuchel starred in Game 1, López and Gio González teamed for a strong effort in Game 2, and Cease did what he did in Game 3.
You need to do it all to be that team that can contend in the playoffs. It wouldn’t be realistic to expect everything to click every day. Even in an entertaining game Sunday where the White Sox should earn high marks, the potent offense mustered just a run against one of the game’s great starting pitchers. But the White Sox were right there, with the tying run 90 feet away in the ninth inning.
The White Sox, of course, are a confident bunch, and they’ve been talking about these playoff possibilities for a long time. They might not need to convince themselves or want to convince anybody else of anything. At least that was the message from the star of the weekend.
“I don’t think we came here to prove or show anything to nobody,” he said through team interpreter Billy Russo. “We know what we are capable of doing. We still need to keep doing it ourselves, keep working. We can’t just fast forward from here to the playoffs. We need to keep executing and keep doing what we have been doing and keep working hard.
“At the end of the season we are going to see the results.”
Obviously there’s a half a season left to be played, and any number of things can happen, in this shortened campaign, to jerk the entire thing in one direction or the other. But even at the end of their winning streak, even with 11 games left on the schedule against the Twins and Indians, it still feels like the White Sox made a statement this weekend at Wrigley Field.
At the very least, they showed what they’re capable of. And what they’re capable of seems to be hanging with baseball’s best and being a team worth, as Cease said, taking seriously come October.