When the modified 60-game schedule was released, it looked like the White Sox three-game matchup with the Cubs to close out the regular season was going to be the biggest Crosstown series since the 1906 World Series.
It didn’t have to be that way. But with three days left in the regular season, it is.
Both the White Sox and Cubs have already clinched their spots in the postseason. But for the South Siders, specifically, the stakes have grown frighteningly high over the last week. Since clinching the franchise’s first playoff berth in a dozen years and completing a series win over the division-rival Minnesota Twins, the White Sox are 1-6 thanks to a disastrous road trip through Ohio. They come into this weekend’s Crosstown set the losers of five straight, six of their last seven and seven of their last nine.
Or the opposite of how you want to be playing on the eve of the postseason.
“The beautiful thing is that we are in the playoffs,” relief pitcher Aaron Bummer said before the losing streak grew to five Thursday night in Cleveland. “This isn’t a team that likes to dwell on things. We’re a big believer in it’s a new day, and each day, each day is a gift. We’re going to move forward with that. It has been a tough stretch, but this doesn’t mean anything in the postseason.
“The goal is to win each and every day, and if we do that, not only are we going to be in a good spot moving into the postseason, chances are we’ll have a division title in our hands, too.”
That’s a fine mindset to have, but it’s going to take more than a rosy outlook for the White Sox to get off their current schneid.
They’ve tumbled out of first place, a game back of the Twins when they woke up Friday morning. They’re also dangerously close to sliding into third place in the division standings, just one game up on the Cleveland Indians after getting swept off the shores of Lake Erie in this week’s four-game set. With three games to go in the regular season, the White Sox playoff seeding is a complete mystery. They’re capable of landing in several different locations between the Nos. 2 and 7 spots on the American League side of the bracket, with no idea what city they’ll be playing in when the playoffs start Tuesday.
While a division title might not mean as much as it used to in an expanded playoff field and a seed change could actually wind up beneficial if it means avoiding red-hot teams like the Indians or New York Yankees in the opening round, the White Sox would have been far happier with what they had when they clinched a playoff spot a week ago: the top spot in the Central and the top spot in the AL.
They have neither after all these defeats, the last several of which have been absolutely crushing, late-inning gut punches. A team that spent much of the season cruising through lesser competition with mile-wide smiles has gone into an offensive funk while the competition has improved. Those smiles? Replaced by frustrated bat slams and blank postgame stares in the dugout. The manager’s being peppered with angry tweets and angry comments on the postgame show following some questionable bullpen decisions that led to or helped the Indians stage three straight late-inning victories.
And so the most important thing at stake this weekend might not be the division crown or playoff seeding — though make no mistake, the White Sox badly want to win the division — but the less tangible elements of momentum, course correction and, as much as can be had in this entirely abnormal season, normalcy.
“I mean, it's a little somber,” starting pitcher Dallas Keuchel said of the postgame mood Thursday. “I think we take all losses hard, so that's tough as it is. I mean heck, we ran into playoff arms. For the most part, I think we've been grinding our tails off and putting ourselves in the position to win. We haven't pushed through.
“I don't think we think about the stretch that we're on. … We're playing good ball clubs. It doesn't get any easier with the Cubs, and it's not going to get any easier with who we match up with in the AL wild card (round). We're going to have to learn quick on how to really put our stamp on the end of games. And I believe in this team. We've showed prowess. We've showed ability to weather storms.
“I don't think we're going to come to the ballpark and worry about how the game's going to go. We're going to be the same old team.”
This weekend is about the White Sox trying to figure out a way to return to form so they can avoid limping into the opening round of the playoffs, where a best-of-three series doesn’t leave much margin for error. That road trip contained just a few brief reminders of what got the White Sox this far. Perhaps seeing the Cubs, who the White Sox mashed against earlier this season, will provide the reboot they need.
But time is running out to get right before the playoffs. While there’s a division race to watch this weekend, the White Sox re-calibrated their playoff expectations and now have their eyes on a much bigger prize. To come anywhere close to meeting them, they’ll have to play three games that completely erase the taste of the last week.