CLEVELAND — For the first time in 13 years, the Chicago White Sox are the champions of the American League Central.
The White Sox finally hammered their magic number down to zero Thursday, winning the first game of a doubleheader against the division-rival Cleveland Indians to secure the Central crown and lock in their spot in the postseason, the first time they've reached the playoffs in consecutive seasons in franchise history.
They wasted no time Thursday, in a 7-2 victory, belting four home runs off Cleveland right-hander Aaron Civale in the first two innings. Shortstop Tim Anderson delivered two of those blasts, becoming the first player in White Sox history to homer in both the first and second innings of two different games (also Aug. 17 2020). They rode their early lopsided lead to clinch in the first game of a five-game series.
While the White Sox' rebuilding effort officially reached winning mode last year, when they were the first team in the AL to clinch a playoff berth, this division championship represents another huge accomplishment on the road to perennial championship contention that general manager Rick Hahn started the team on with rebuild-jumpstarting trades after the 2016 campaign.
The next step in that journey? Winning in the postseason. Since the team won the World Series in 2005, it's played in a pair of first-round playoff series, in 2008 and 2020, and lost both of them, winning just two playoff games since hoisting the trophy 16 years ago.
Since spring training, the White Sox have been adamant that the expectation is for this team to win the World Series in 2021. Despite an up-and-down second half that's featured a record just one win better than .500, every player you ask expresses the same kind of confidence that this roster is capable of achieving baseball's ultimate goal. Of course, that same inconsistent play makes it nearly impossible to predict how the South Siders will fare in October.
The White Sox' likely opponent in the Division Series is the AL West-leading Houston Astros, though it's still possible they could meet the AL East-leading Tampa Bay Rays. The ALDS begins Oct. 7.
The more immediate challenge for the White Sox is avoiding the kind of post-clinch slump they experienced a season ago, when they went 3-10, including a 1-2 record against the Oakland Athletics in the AL Wild Card Series, after clinching a playoff spot.
But with a potent lineup full of homegrown stars, a dominant starting rotation and three-time world-champion manager Tony La Russa at the helm, the White Sox are hoping they have the right combination to not just avoid last year's fate but to make 2021 feel an awful lot like 2005.