Yolmer Sánchez was pitching in a pennant race.
And the Cubs were tacking on. The infielder’s first throw was tattooed into The Goose Island. Javy Baez greeted him by batting left-handed, then ripping a double anyway.
What was happening? What year was it? Did someone shove the White Sox into a time machine and send them back to the dark days of the rebuild?
The White Sox didn’t come close to playing like contenders Friday night, their end-of-season tailspin worsening with a 10-0 pounding courtesy of the Crosstown-rival Cubs. White Sox pitchers, Sánchez included, gave up five home runs. White Sox hitters mustered only three hits. Their losing streak stretched to six.
They were manhandled. They were obliterated. They were embarrassed.
“It was handed to us, right?” manager Rick Renteria seemingly referencing his team’s collective rear end. “Nobody is happy about how that ended up playing itself out. It puts you in a situation where you are embarrassed. That’s as easy as I can put it.”
The playoffs start in four days.
The White Sox are playing their worst baseball of what was previously believed to be a dream season, the last week turning things into a nightmare in a hurry. Yes, they’re going to the playoffs, their ticket punched last Thursday. But ever since, they’ve lost seven of the eight games they’ve played. The offense is in a funk so deep George Clinton would approve. There were defensive miscues all over the place Friday. The pitching has certainly been better than the bats, but the White Sox are having difficulty finding a reliable Game 3 starter.
That is, if they get to a Game 3.
Indeed, this team has shown itself capable of flipping a switch and turning things around in a hurry. After the doubleheader sweep at the hands of the St. Louis Cardinals, the White Sox flipped that switch and dominated for a month.
But after relaxing, to use José Abreu’s word, following their clinching of the franchise’s first playoff spot in a dozen years, the White Sox have not been able to snap out of it. Four nights of nightmares in Cleveland might have carried into Friday night’s series-opener against the Cubs, Renteria hypothesized.
“Today it was just one of those days where it's just the effect of we got swept. I don't want to say that that's what it is, but we certainly weren't able to do a whole lot today and we've got to be prepared to do it tomorrow.”
The White Sox are rapidly running out of tomorrows. Two games are all that remain on this shortened regular-season schedule, no time at all, in baseball terms, to do much of anything. But they’re suddenly of critical import to the White Sox, who can still technically win the AL Central championship and improve their playoff seed, which sat at No. 7 as of this writing.
None of that, though, seems more important than the White Sox simply getting right and snapping out of this mess. A team that had the best record in the American League a little more than a week ago is in danger of limping into the postseason and a best-of-three opening-round series that leaves little room for error.
They have recently recalibrated postseason expectations to win the World Series. They can’t do that without winning some games.
“For whatever reason, we’ve lost,” starting pitcher Dylan Cease said. “All we can do is let those go and move forward. I don’t think we have to do anything drastically different other than play up to our potential or execute at a little bit higher rate.
“We’ve had a good season. The last week hasn’t been good, but other than that, we don’t need to panic, we don’t need to lose confidence. We have a lot of good players. It’s just about bringing it to the park.”
Renteria was right when he said that not every night is going to look like Friday, and indeed not all of them have. You can only get walked off on back-to-back nights and blow a late lead on the third if you’re in a series of nail-biters. Those probably felt more painful than the absolute thumping the Cubs delivered Friday.
But the result is the same all around: an “L.”
“It's not a question of motivation. It's a question of performance,” Renteria said. “These guys understand what's going on and trust me. They know what's going on. They know where we're at. I don't have a crystal ball, but I can say that I'm sure that in their mind's eye, they want to come out and perform well as we continue to move forward in the next couple of days.
“I think they will be a little bit more fired up to go play tomorrow.”
They’re going to have to be. Or the playoff run that they want to end in October glory could be in danger of not even making it out of September.