Fourteen games. Four opponents. And an opportunity for the Chicago White Sox to prove something.
Supposedly, the narrative went, the White Sox couldn't beat good teams. So an August gauntlet against the New York Yankees, Oakland Athletics, Tampa Bay Rays and Toronto Blue Jays was going to be the measuring stick a month out from the postseason. Seven games at home, seven on the road. Could the White Sox erase the narrative?
Uh, kind of? Sort of? Not really?
The White Sox went 7-7, providing a couple instant-classic victories and more than a couple maddening defeats. At separate times, Tim Anderson went off and the bats went cold. The starting pitching was excellent. The bullpen was not quite as excellent.
It was a mixed bag. The White Sox don't look "ready for October," necessarily, in the classic sense. But they don't look incapable of winning there, either.
"I think we lost a couple of games that were there to win. We also took away a win that was there to lose," White Sox manager Tony La Russa said after Thursday's 10-7 win over the Blue Jays. "The old saying is you've got a chance to play in October, some of the best wins are the toughest wins. ... This was, 7-7, but I thought we came to play, for sure, 13 times. ... I just think we showed a lot of toughness in those games."
In the end, what was true before might still be true: The White Sox have not fared well against their fellow contenders away from the South Side. The bullpen is still causing the same head-scratching frustration it was before the trades for Craig Kimbrel and Ryan Tepera. The starting rotation looks to be the team's biggest strength in the playoffs. And the lineup's still waiting for at least one key reinforcement, while very capable of being the potent force that was projected in the spring.
It's not to say we learned nothing about these White Sox from a two-week stretch against the types of teams they're going to face in the postseason. Taking three of four from the A's seemed like a pretty big deal. Failing to compete much in the final two games of their series with the Rays did, too. If being in the thick of four really competitive games in Toronto counts for something, well the White Sox did that, even if they only won two of them.
But if we're having trouble nailing down new discoveries about the White Sox, perhaps the White Sox found it easier to find out something about themselves?"
People are out to beat us. We're the team to beat," Anderson said. "Guys are going to give us everything they've got to beat us. So it's up on us to continue to keep playing."
Just to see where we stand, see how we match up against good ball clubs, as well. Definitely a good start heading to where we're trying to go. So we've just got to continue to keep battling and we'll get to where we want to be."
Indeed, no one was sleeping on the White Sox during this stretch, the Yankees starting a trend of clubs attacking the team's relief corps by blowing up Liam Hendriks in consecutive games. Michael Kopech was the recipient of a couple rude greetings by the Blue Jays, including a nasty five-run outing Thursday.
That might not be something that drops with the level of competition, either.
"Every team that's out of it, it makes their day, it makes their week, it gives them something positive if they beat us. So every team we play is a playoff team, not just the teams above .500," White Sox hitting coach Frank Menechino said before Thursday's game. "We play Detroit and Cleveland and Kansas City, it makes their day to beat us. So when you have an 'X' on your back and you're a playoff team, everybody wants to beat you.
"So every game is a playoff game, so you've got to come prepared every day to go out there, whether it's a World Series game, a playoff game or a game against a non-contender, you have to go out there every day and do your job the way you're supposed to."
The White Sox will still have challenges over the final month of the regular season. They travel to Oakland in what figures to be a key series against the A's, at the site of last year's quick October exit. They'll play hosts to the Boston Red Sox and the upstart Cincinnati Reds.
"Last two weeks or so, we've played some really good teams, played some really close ballgames, and I think we've got a taste of what it's going to look like later in the year," Kimbrel said. "We've got to figure out where's the difference and what we've got to do better.
"And getting to do that right now — understanding that we've been successful in certain areas and unsuccessful in others, and how can we make that better? — being able to do that at this point of the year is huge just moving forward, getting those things tightened up and ready to go."
They have a month left to get to where they want to be: playing their best baseball as the playoffs begin. Applying the lessons from the last two weeks will be critical in getting to that point.
Yasmani Grandal is coming back soon, and he figures to provide another huge boost for the lineup. Carlos Rodón returned from the injured list Thursday and makes a dominant rotation whole again. Those are improvements that ought to help the club out big time in September and into October.
But the difference between accomplishing the World Series-level goals and going home earlier than desired could lie in what the White Sox learned these last two weeks.