The White Sox are in first place.
That’s been a rarity — heck, it’s been practically non-existent — since the team launched its rebuilding project after the 2016 season.
But that rebuild has yielded the fruit of contention in 2020, and the White Sox are playing winning baseball in the middle of this bizarre, shortened campaign.
A 6-5 walk-off win over the Kansas City Royals counted as one of the more dramatic during the team's current white-hot stretch, but it was a win, just like all the blowouts and no-hitters before it. The White Sox are 10-1 in their last 11 games and moved into a three-way tie for first place in the AL Central standings alongside the Minnesota Twins and Cleveland Indians on Friday night.
After three rebuilding seasons that saw the team lose a combined 284 games, a 20-12 record and a share of first place is a heck of a reward.
“We’ve been working the last couple of years for this. We’ve been waiting for this moment,” pitcher Reynaldo López said after the game through team interpreter Billy Russo. “And now that we’re here, it’s a really sweet moment for us and a reward for all the work that we’ve put in the past and that we continue to do in the present.”
Indeed, the different feeling of this White Sox team keeps on making itself apparent.
The White Sox and Royals briefly looked a little too much like the teams that lost a combined 192 games in 2019, with a base-running snafu turning into a fielding gaffe of epic proportions in the top of the ninth inning.
The White Sox owned a 5-4 advantage with closer Alex Colomé on the mound, but a line drive into the outfield followed a one-out walk, seemingly producing big-time trouble for the South Siders. That's when Maikel Franco got caught in a rundown between first and second base. Bubba Starling made it to third but wasn’t budging — until Franco somehow avoided José Abreu's tag at second and Abreu, from the seat of his pants, threw home, where Yasmani Grandal’s head was turned toward the dugout, the ball rolling between his legs and to the backstop. The tying run came home and sent the White Sox back to the plate in the bottom of the inning.
That’s when Grandal blasted a walk-off homer into The Goose Island. Ballgame.
Grandal, of course, was perhaps the biggest of the White Sox many offseason additions, which along with a breakout by the young core last season made a climb out of rebuilding mode and into contention mode seem possible this year. He delivered his biggest blow of his White Sox tenure to date Friday night, as the team won a game it might’ve easily lost during the rebuilding years, defeat being snatched from the jaws of victory.
But not now. Not for this first-place club.
“Honestly, yes,” third baseman Yoán Moncada said through Russo, asked if moments like Grandal’s walk-off dinger have hammered home the different feeling this season. “Someone from the dugout called that homer. It was crazy. The celebration, in the moment, we felt very good. It was a sensational moment for us.
“We've been working for this. We've been working for this and more. Our goal is to be in the playoffs and to win as much as we can, not just games but titles.”
While the White Sox have been among baseball’s hottest teams the last week and a half, they haven’t seen much letting up from their division rivals. The Twins and Indians have been doing plenty of winning, too, and it’s a three-team deadlock with just 28 games to go in the race for the Central crown.
The White Sox should certainly be happy with any kind of playoff berth they can get, with the franchise on an October-less streak of more than a decade. But they look capable of doing more than just getting into 2020’s field of eight AL teams this postseason. They look capable of battling it out with the Twins and Indians for divisional supremacy.
That will, of course, require some winning against those clubs. And though the games were played before the White Sox caught fire here of late, the South Siders went just 3-6 in their first nine games against the Twins and Indians. They’ll have a chance to improve that winning percentage with a three-game set with the Twins starting Monday in Minneapolis.
But first, the Royals.
After posting a losing record against the Royals last season, when the Show Me Staters dropped 104 games, the White Sox were going to need to feast on easier competition like the Royals, the Detroit Tigers and the Pittsburgh Pirates if they wanted to run with the big dogs in a division race.
Well, they’ve capitalized so far, with a 12-1 record against those three teams, including seven wins against them during this 10-1 stretch.
“You have to play good with any team,” López said. “But to play with a team that is under .500 and know that your chances are better, you don’t have to get overconfident because those are the games, those are the situations that are going to help you for when you have to face teams that are competing with you to get in that spot in the playoffs.”
With the White Sox on fire, the question has morphed from whether they can reach the playoffs to what kind of noise they can make once they get there. Obviously there won’t be a Pirates team there for them to no-hit, or a Royals team there to cough up a one-run lead against and then immediately turn around for a walk-off victory. They passed a big test against the Cubs last weekend, but the biggest test yet comes next week in the Land of 10,000 Lakes.
And so as thrilling as Friday night’s walk-off winner was, as impressive as the last 11 games have been, there’s still work to be done.
“I've seen a different attitude,” Grandal said describing the change in this team during their 10-1 stretch. “Defensively, we've been really good. Starting pitchers have been good. The offense obviously has taken flight. But we've still got a lot of things to improve.
“At the end of the year, we want to be one of the top teams in run differential. If we're able to do that, we're going to be in the playoffs or you're going to be in the race for the playoffs for a long time.
“We know that that starts with defense, and we know that there's a lot of things we need to clean up and work on.”