HOUSTON — For months, the Chicago White Sox have focused on making sure they didn't have a repeat of last fall.
But the real danger, perhaps, was experiencing a repeat of this summer.
There was arguably no worse on-field stretch for the White Sox this season than the four-game sweep they suffered at the hands of the Houston Astros in June. As they geared up to face that same Astros team in the American League Division Series, those results were dismissed, rightfully, it seemed, as a product of the South Siders not being at full strength. They were without Eloy Jiménez, without Luis Robert, and Lucas Giolito didn't pitch in the series.
But in a 6-1 drubbing in Game 1 of the ALDS on Thursday, a supposedly new-look White Sox team was dealt the same fate.
Back in June, the otherwise dominant White Sox starting rotation was made to look mortal by the Astros, who were swinging a set of red-hot bats. Lance Lynn was crushed. Dylan Cease was crushed. Dallas Keuchel was crushed. The White Sox' offense, which was obviously missing those aforementioned pieces, was mostly quiet.
After playing another half a season and winning an AL Central championship? More of the same.
Lynn was throttled by Astros bats Thursday, the home team putting constant traffic on the bases and scoring in ways small and big. They scored five runs off him and chased him before the end of the fourth inning. They looked like the offense that produced baseball's second highest OPS during the regular season, not caring one bit that the Big Bastard on the mound was a Cy Young candidate.
Meanwhile, the White Sox mustered practically nothing against Lance McCullers Jr., one of the AL's top arms this year in his own right, who completely shut down a South Side lineup that while inconsistent throughout the campaign gave plenty of reasons for optimism down the stretch. But even with Jiménez and Robert reinserted into things — the White Sox playing one of their few games at full strength this season thanks to José Abreu overcoming his flu-like symptoms to play — there was nothing doing.
White Sox closer Liam Hendriks bristled Wednesday at a reporter's suggestion that the Astros possess the AL's best lineup, citing his own offense as just as menacing. Thursday, his indignance looked wholly unjustified.
There was a lot of talk about which White Sox team would show up in this series, in the postseason in general, and rightfully so, as the answer seemed to be a mystery. There was far less talk about which Astros team would show up.
In Game 1, at least, it was the same Astros team that's showed up in the playoffs so many times before. And a White Sox team that Lynn said recently had "a lot of s--t to prove" found out what's so impressive about a team that's been one of baseball's most dangerous squads for so many years.
"Obviously, you know what they've been able to do the last several years in the playoffs, and it's a challenge, no doubt, for us coming in as a relatively fresh-faced, inexperienced team," Hendriks said. "They are a different animal in the playoffs. They are a very good playoff team. ... That's what they're known for, that's what they're really good at is figuring out how to win in the playoffs. ... That's one of their biggest strengths, not only what they're able to do, but how cohesive a unit they are come playoff time."
"Houston is a fantastic team," White Sox general manager Rick Hahn said earlier this week. "They're not only former world champions, they're used to being in this environment on an annual basis. ... They've been to the mountaintop. We're on our way up, and it's going to be on us to find a way to get around them."
The margin for error to do that is smaller than it was before Thursday's thumping, obviously. The White Sox can only lose one more time in this series if they want their postseason run to extend past next week.
The good news? They're throwing Giolito in Game 2 on Friday afternoon.
The White Sox' ace has a lot going for him, chiefly a tremendous second half of this season that actually started with a dominating performance against these Astros, when he allowed just one run on three hits in a complete-game effort. Giolito hasn't pitched in Houston since May 2019, but that's when he threw another complete game, that one a shutout with just four hits allowed, during his All-Star season.
"I can draw from experience," Giolito said Thursday. "I like this ballpark. I like this mound. But at the same time, every single game's different. So a pitcher can go out there with good stuff, bad stuff, somewhere in between. You've got to make sure that ... (I'm) keeping my preparation as sound as possible and being ready to go tomorrow. That's all that matters."
Giolito also dealt in his only other playoff start, when he took a perfect-game bid into the seventh inning against the Oakland Athletics in Game 1 of last year's AL Wild Card Series. That afternoon, he entered what Tim Anderson called "bully stage" and looked as dominant as any pitcher you'll see in the postseason.
The White Sox could use some "bully stage" from Giolito on Friday if they hope to slow down an Astros lineup that blasted off in Game 1 the same way it did against them in June.
Otherwise, that four-game sweep might not be the most painful series they'll play against the Astros this season.