The first contending season of White Sox baseball in years is over.
Rick Renteria sent a parade of pitchers to the mound Thursday afternoon in Oakland, but hardly any of them could consistently find the strike zone, a bullpen day going awry early and often en route to a 6-4 defeat that eliminated the White Sox from the franchise's first postseason in a dozen years. The AL West champion A's took this best-of-three AL Wild Card Series and advanced to the ALDS.
The White Sox called on Dane Dunning to start Game 3 after using their two elite starting pitchers, Lucas Giolito and Dallas Keuchel, in the first two games of the series. But it was expected that he wouldn't be expected to log many innings with a well-rested bullpen ready to go behind him. Renteria let Dunning face just four hitters, pulling him in the middle of a first-inning jam in the first of what seemed like constant pitching changes throughout the game.
But it wasn't until the second inning that the White Sox plans truly seem to blow up, with rookie fireballer Garrett Crochet needing to depart with left forearm tightness after facing just two batters.
Meanwhile, the White Sox offense built a 3-0 lead, getting a couple RBIs from Luis Robert — including one on a 487-foot home run, the second longest homer in the big leagues this year — and another from Nomar Mazara.
But while Renteria kept searching for any pitcher to consistently get outs, the wheels finally fell off in the fourth inning. Codi Heuer gave up a two-out, two-run homer to A's catcher Sean Murphy. Then Carlos Rodón entered, walking the first batter he faced, giving up a double to Marcus Semien and intentionally walking the bases loaded. Renteria swapped Rodón for Matt Foster, who issued back-to-back bases-loaded walks to first tie the game, then give the A's the lead.
Even though Mazara tied the game with another RBI hit the following inning, the White Sox bullpen continued its struggles, Evan Marshall sandwiching a pair of two-out walks around a catcher's interference call, then giving up a two-run single that put the A's back in front.
That was a lead they didn't relinquish, as the White Sox, despite mounting several threats, couldn't tie things up again. By afternoon's end, they stranded 12 base runners and went 3-for-14 with runners in scoring position.
All told, the White Sox used nine different pitchers who combined for nine walks.
And so after a wild final game, the White Sox move on to the offseason.
Though the team's expectations shifted midway through the year, from simply reaching the playoffs to making a run at a championship, it's hard to read the campaign as anything but a success for a team that's long treated its rebuilding project as a long-term endeavor.
This time a year ago, the White Sox had just wrapped up an 89-loss campaign. And while breakout seasons by many of the team's young, core members coupled with an active offseason got everyone excited, no one was sure how quickly the White Sox would be able to rise out of rebuilding mode and into contention mode.
It didn't take long. The White Sox started the year 10-11 but exploded out of a doubleheader sweep at the hands of the St. Louis Cardinals to win 23 of their next 29 games. That stretch featured a rebuilt lineup crushing one home run after another — sometimes literally, like when they mashed four in a row — José Abreu building an MVP season and Giolito throwing a no-hitter. They surged to the best record in the AL before a late-season swoon that saw them drop eight of their last 10, missing an AL Central championship by one game.
By then, the White Sox had long recalibrated their expectations, but dial the memory back to February and the first round of spring training, before the COVID-19 pandemic shut down the sport for nearly four months, and the suggestion that they would have been a win away from a division title on the final day of the regular season would have been eye-popping.
General manager Rick Hahn spent much of the year, unsure of what the 60-game season would hold, saying that postseason experience of any kind for a group that's scheduled to stick together for an awful long time would be extraordinarily valuable. Well, they got it, not just reaching the playoffs but winning a game behind a dominant Giolito performance and finding themselves in a pair of nail-biters that went the way of the A's.
Now the White Sox enter the offseason with that playoff experience under their belts and a wide-open contention window in front of them thanks to the contract extensions handed out to Eloy Jiménez, Robert and Yoán Moncada in the last two years. Much of this same group will return for 2021, a season in which they'll be expected to play contending baseball from start to finish.
As for what the offseason holds, that could be dictated by economic realities of the game in the wake of a season without fans in the stands. But the White Sox spent big on Keuchel and Yasmani Grandal last season, plus with the aforementioned contract extensions for their young stars, setting them up for success regardless of whether or not they're able to go after a big fish in free agency.
But as the curtain closes on 2020, it will be remembered as the season the White Sox ascended. The uncertainties of the past several seasons have been replaced by a certainty moving forward: From here on out the White Sox will be expected to compete for and win World Series championships.
They're at that stage thanks to what they did this season.