Playoff mode, from Day 1.
Remember? That’s how the White Sox were approaching this most unusual, 60-game season, a two-month sprint to October where every game was said to mean so much. A fast start was critical. And so the players were going to treat every game like a playoff game.
Well, if the season was a best-of-seven playoff series, the White Sox would have been eliminated after five games.
Thankfully for them, it isn’t, and after a 1-4 start that had plenty questioning whether this was really a team poised for a leap into contention mode, the White Sox have rattled off four straight wins — including a sweep-capping 9-2 thumping of the Royals on Sunday — and are above .500.
“The morale is way better,” starting pitcher Dylan Cease said after Sunday’s game. “We're back over .500 now. Nobody was panicked. We have enough vets on the team to calm everyone down. It definitely feels better to be on the positive side of .500.”
There’s limited opportunity for a team still learning how to win to evolve into a winner in this short season. But that doesn’t mean there’s no opportunity at all, and the White Sox are growing nonetheless.
It might end up being proven that this recent surge was perhaps an anomaly caused by a weekend series against a team that lost 103 games last year. While 20 runs and 35 hits in back-to-back offensive eruptions sure looked like a completed puzzle showing what it was capable of, we’ll see what happens when that same lineup gets another taste of Indians pitching or has to go toe to toe with the Twins again.
But there’s been more change than just the competition.
“I think we're in a pretty good spot,” catcher Yasmani Grandal said. “I think the first two series, it was more of trying to feel each other out. Even though a lot of these guys have played together for a while now, we have a lot of young guys who haven't been in the big leagues for a while. It's almost like a brand new team, if you can think of it that way. I think we're getting a sense of what we can do and how we can help each other out in different situations.
“It's starting to learn how to make adjustments. Obviously Minnesota got on us early for two games, but we went right back at them. We ended up losing the first game, but we started making adjustments from then. With the Indians, same thing, ended up winning the last game and we kind of saw and started feeling exactly what we can do in certain situations so that we're not giving up outs.
“We're getting on base, we're making pitches. I feel like making adjustments from one series to another, from one game to another, is going to be the biggest thing.”
Grandal was one of a couple new White Sox veterans who predicted during “Summer Camp” that the team’s youth could result in either a really good start to the campaign or a really bad one. Who knows how long a “start” lasts, numerically, in a 60-game season. If it’s nine games, then neither of those ends of the spectrum came true and instead the White Sox are right down the middle.
But since the start looked anything but fast midway through last week, the positives have started coming in in droves. This young lineup has looked particularly excellent, with the trio of Luis Robert, Eloy Jiménez and Yoán Moncada putting up big numbers. Jiménez has a .997 OPS, with Robert and Moncada following with marks of .979 and .890, respectively.
Then there’s Nick Madrigal, whose big league arrival alone had a positive effect, seemingly completing the puzzle at the big league level for a White Sox fanbase that’s been drawing up lineups of the future for so long. But he did more than just be in the lineup Sunday, putting together a four-hit day in just his third career game.
After shaky starting-pitching performances the first time through the rotation, not everything’s exactly fixed just yet. Reynaldo López is on the injured list, Gio González lasted just 3.2 innings in his first start for the team that drafted him 16 years ago, and Carlos Rodón hasn’t yet had the chance to bounce back from his first outing of the year. But Lucas Giolito and Dylan Cease solved whatever was bothering them in their first starts of the season. Giolito responded with six shutout innings against the Indians, and Cease shone with two runs in six innings against the Royals on Sunday.
The small sample sizes and momentum-swinging stretches of this squeezed-down 2020 season could cause a whiplash of emotion and perception for the next two months. But for right now, things are looking up on the South Side.
“You can see, immediately, how much talent is on the roster, and to be out there with those guys, it’s a lot of fun,” Madrigal said. “I really don’t even think all of us have clicked at once yet. There have been glimpses of some guys getting hot, but I’m excited once everyone kind of clicks in the same game. There’s a lot to look forward to.”
As should come as no surprise, these pro athletes aren’t going to ride that same emotional roller coaster, at least not in their public comments. “Taking it one day at a time” is one of sports’ most used cliches — and for good reason, as it often seems to work, especially for teams that are really good to begin with.
But these White Sox are sticking to their guns that “one day at a time” means a whole lot more in 2020. Playoff mode isn’t going anywhere.
“We know all these games are must-win,” Cease said. “I think we're treating them like playoff games pretty much at this point.”