How high can the Chicago White Sox fly this fall?
They aim to use the month of September to find out.
A series win against the Crosstown-rival Chicago Cubs this weekend ought to tantalize when it comes to dreaming about the possibilities for this White Sox team once the calendar flips to October. The South Siders scored 30 runs in three games, a pair of offensive explosions sandwiched around a shutout loss Saturday night.
They showed exactly what kind of game-changing power burst a fully healthy lineup is capable of by ambushing North Side pitching for seven runs in the fifth inning Sunday, José Abreu going over the 100-RBI mark with a two-run double ahead of multi-run homers by Eloy Jiménez and Yasmani Grandal. Luis Robert added a pair of dingers in other frames.
"I think everybody on this team knows that we can do what we did today," Robert said through team interpreter Billy Russo. "That's our goal and our mindset, just go out there and do our best and do what we did today.
"That's something that we all know that we can do, and that's the quality of this team."
Before the game, manager Tony La Russa was asked if he thought his team was ready for the kind of lengthy playoff run it's been discussing since the spring, a worthy question considering the ups and downs of the last couple weeks. A stretch of 17 games in 18 days featured epic late-inning victories, ugly late-inning meltdowns, silent stretches from the offense and a trio of double-digit run totals in just the last four games.
It's been hard to say, from an observer's perspective, that the White Sox have looked "playoff ready" in the traditional sense, even while they haven't looked bad enough to forecast a brief October stay.
But what says the skipper with the three World Series rings on his fingers, the guy whose purpose for being back in the manager's chair on the South Side is to add a fourth?
"I think by the time we get to October, if our heads are on straight and we've learned some stuff between now and then, I think we're going to be tough to play against," La Russa said. "But if we stop right now and the first game of the playoffs, if we got in, was tomorrow, there's improvements that we wouldn't have time to make.
"So I'm optimistic that we're going to (make those improvements), especially after you play for five months and you get to know your club — pitching, hitting — really well. With little tweaks, big tweaks, I think we can get better."
The White Sox' wins over the Cubs were the preview of the type of "better" that this team can get.
Starting pitching has carried the White Sox to this point, the largest division lead in baseball, and despite Dallas Keuchel and Lance Lynn getting shelled on Friday and Saturday, the starting pitching will remain the team's biggest strength heading toward October. Just ask Dylan Cease, who shut down the Cubs to the tune of a run on four hits while striking out 11 in six innings Sunday.
But what should be really exciting for the White Sox and their fans is what the bats did this weekend. Grandal's return Friday night came with a bang — two of them, actually — as the No. 1 catcher showed exactly what he can bring over the final month of the regular season and in the postseason. Fully healthy, with Jiménez and Robert both returned from their own extended absences, and combining for three homers and six RBIs on Sunday, the White Sox should be expected to do the kind of slugging they were before the season began.
"With Grandal back, I think that the team is finally running on all cylinders. The team's complete," Robert said. "Everybody's healthy now, and that's a plus for us. And we've shown what we can do when the team is complete."
Combine that offensive potential with what's been a season's worth of dominant starting pitching, and you've got a potential postseason favorite.
But even all those runs and all those whiffs won't completely silence the worries about what could trip the White Sox up. That's what September is for, as La Russa acknowledged.
Keuchel is trying to right his personal ship to the point the team's highest paid pitcher can sneak onto the playoff roster. The bullpen is a constant source of frustration and downright confusion as Craig Kimbrel — who gave up a pair of homers in his appearance against his old club Friday — continues to search for the same kind of dominance he experienced on the other side of town. And with a microscope on every game, mistakes in the field and on the base paths can drive folks nuts.
Certainly, the White Sox just showed there is a mighty small margin for error if they're going to achieve their championship-level goals. Tim Anderson's four-game absence on the last road trip unsurprisingly coincided with the offense going quiet. A couple bad pitches from Lynn and Kimbrel lost a game in Toronto. And it's rather easy to respond to news of the White Sox' offensive shows Friday and Sunday and respond, "But what about Saturday's blanking?"
But given a month to get cleaned up ahead of the playoffs, the White Sox could be doing what they've said is the most important thing: playing their best baseball by the end of September and peaking at the right time.
What does peaking look like?
It looks like the balls Robert, Jiménez and Grandal blasted out of Guaranteed Rate Field on Sunday afternoon, like the league-leading RBI total Abreu owns, like the seventh double-digit strikeout performance of Cease's season.
"When things are clicking like that today, we're a scary team. And I think just in general we're a scary team," Cease said. "Our pitching is pretty incredible, and our offense, especially as of late, has been nothing short of spectacular.
"We've just got to keep gaining ground going into October."
Not everything's perfect at the moment, and swinging between some really high highs and confusingly low lows doesn't exactly scream postseason readiness. But given a month to turn those swings into consistent success, the White Sox could find themselves ready to go deep in October.
They could be, to point to La Russa's goals for the regular season's final month, better.