It’s not too often you see a manager intentionally load the bases to face Christian Yelich.
Of course, it’s not too often you see Yelich batting .088.
White Sox manager Rick Renteria certainly turned some heads Monday when he opted to intentionally walk Milwaukee Brewers second baseman Keston Hiura to face Yelich in the fifth inning. The White Sox were winning 2-1 and reliever Jace Fry was in trouble with runners on second and third with one out. Loading the bases for Yelich might not have been the obvious move, but it also wasn’t the wrong move.
By Wednesday, Brewers manager Craig Counsell pulled Yelich out of his lineup because the outfielder is struggling so bad. But the White Sox knew that coming into the home-and-home series, so when it came to either making a pitching change to face Hiura (remember the three-batter rule in that situation) or set up a lefty-lefty matchup with Fry facing Yelich, Door No. 2 made a lot of sense.
Sure enough, Yelich struck out looking, the first of four strikeouts for the former National League MVP in the two games at Miller Park.
"I don't want to make too many generalizations over strategic decisions in small samples. And, also, do keep in mind, I'm privy to certain availability or lack of availability that may exist going into any given night,” White Sox general manager Rick Hahn said about his manager Wednesday. “So I might understand what seems like a peculiar choice more easily than it appears, at least during the game until Ricky's had a chance to explain himself publicly.”
The Brewers ended up scoring two runs in that inning after Renteria went to Steve Cishek to face Avisail Garcia, but Cishek induced a groundball that just happened to sneak by Yoán Moncada at third base to score those two runs. From a managerial standpoint, Renteria made the right calls.
Perhaps more importantly, he clearly has the buy-in from his clubhouse and didn’t flinch when the White Sox got off to a 1-4. His team responded by winning six straight before falling 1-0 to the Brewers Wednesday at Guaranteed Rate Field.
“Two parts. We have very talented guys offensively who are continuing to develop and putting points on the board. They’re grinding out at-bats,” Renteria said. “Defensively, we seem to be catching the ball and doing the things we should be doing there.”
As is typical of Renteria, he gave his players the credit, but the White Sox specifically identified the manager as the right guy to develop the organization’s talent during a painful rebuild. He surely deserves some of the credit if his team plays smart baseball within its competitive window, which appears to be open. Coming into Wednesday, the White Sox were tied for the fifth fewest errors in baseball with three.
“We’ll try to make the minimal amount of mistakes mentally and physically. But you have to play a well-rounded ballgame,” Renteria said. “We’ve had a nice little run there and hopefully it continues.”
Now in his fourth season as White Sox manager, Renteria has his fair share of doubters. Fans and media – myself included – occasionally picked apart some of his lineups over the last three seasons, too often ignoring the hand he was being dealt. Until now, Renteria has never been given the chance to prove himself with a true contender, simply getting labeled as a developmental manager. That reputation comes from a track record of developing young talent, but somehow gets spun into a negative attribute, mainly because he was ousted by the Cubs in 2014 after just one season when Joe Maddon became available.
But on the South Side, Hahn has expressed nothing but faith and commitment to Renteria, making sure the fans know his manager is going to get a chance to win with a talented team. That team finally arrived in 2020 and Renteria has done nothing but inspire hope through the first 12 games.
“I've been impressed with his use of the bullpen,” Hahn said. “I've been impressed with him being able to balance the desire to win each and every game, given how important, mathematically, each and every game is, but at the same time remains focused on the long term and preserving player health and availability the best we can under difficult circumstances."
And the COVID-19 pandemic is part of the equation. Every manager is being dealt difficult circumstances in trying to keep their team safe and healthy – let alone competitive – during a shortened 60-game season that was restarted only after a less than adequate second spring training. But one thing that was apparent early in the White Sox’s “Summer Camp” is that Renteria’s players remained committed during the 3.5 month hiatus and showed up to Chicago in shape. They’ve remained focused through the first 12 games of the season, resulting in a 7-5 record.
“You have a group of young men who are growing together and have a lot of fun that are understanding what they’re capable of doing. They’re trusting each other a little more and we’ll allow them to play it out,” Renteria said.
But the real challenge has yet to come. If the White Sox continue to play close, competitive games that mean more and more, each and every move by the manager will be scrutinized.
Imagine loading the bases for Yelich in October.
But Renteria, 58, has been in professional baseball for the better part of four decades now. He’s been a Major League coach since 2008. And he’s just now getting his opportunity to lead a truly competitive team. He’s fiery and determined. So if you think he’s going to fail, you’re probably not giving him enough credit.
“It’s moments in time that dictate what you will and will not do,” Renteria said. “If you have a club that’s able to slug and they’re running hot, you let them run hot. But they still need to be able to do other things when needed. Fortunately, they’re coming into their own and swinging the bats well.”
The White Sox surely are coming into their own. And Renteria seems to know exactly what to do with them.