The White Sox are fiercely loyal to one of sports’ favorite clichés.
“We're not taking any team for granted. We take every team seriously. We know that every team that we face is a challenge for us, and we're going to perform and do our best,” third baseman Yoán Moncada said Sunday, through team interpreter Billy Russo. “That's just the way that we play the game, that's the way that (manager Rick Renteria) has taught us how to play the game, and we're going to continue with that philosophy and that mindset.
“It doesn't matter who is the team we are facing, we're going to try to do our best and try to win games.”
They don’t deserve to be criticized for such a strict adherence to that philosophy. After all, they’ve won a lot of games. Following Sunday’s 5-2 win over the Detroit Tigers, they’ve got the best record in the American League, at 30-16, trailing only the elite-of-elite Los Angeles Dodgers for the best win-loss mark in baseball.
But they’re also about to face their biggest test of their upstart 2020 campaign.
A vault into contention mode has come swiftly for the South Siders, who a year ago at this time were wrapping up an 89-loss season. Now, powered by the AL’s top offense and a couple top-of-the-line arms at the front of the starting rotation, they seem as good a bet as anyone to win the pennant.
That thinking, though, will be put to the test this week. The White Sox have amassed the league’s best record mostly thanks to dominating the season series against the Tigers and Kansas City Royals. They won 18 of the 20 games they played against those two teams, accounting for nearly two-thirds of all their 2020 victories.
Against the other two teams they’re directly competing against for the AL Central crown? Not so much. In a dozen combined games against the Minnesota Twins and Cleveland Indians, the White Sox have won just four times, dropping all four three-game series.
The White Sox might not want to talk about it, claiming they’ll treat the four games against the Twins this week and the four against the Indians a week later the same way they treated recent sweeps of the Tigers and Royals. And surely they’ll try to do just that. But the results have been vastly different to this point. And so whether they think they do or not, the White Sox indeed still have something to prove: Can they beat good teams?
Only two other series they’ve played this season have come against winning clubs, one on the South Side against the St. Louis Cardinals and another on the North Side against the Crosstown-rival Cubs. Roll all the games against the Twins, Indians, Cardinals and Cubs together, and the White Sox are an unimpressive 7-11.
The White Sox would be the No. 1 seed in the AL playoff field if the season ended today. And it’d be anyone’s guess as to how they’d fare in that series.
That’s what this week — and the rest of the season, really, with 11 of the final 14 games coming against the Twins, Indians and Cubs — is about.
"As far as I’m concerned, the next 14 or 15 games are playoff games," White Sox hitting coach Frank Menechino said before Sunday's game. "'These are playoff games, fellas. Let’s go out and execute like it’s the playoffs, so when the playoffs do come, we’re going to be the same.'
"If we focus on the next 14, 15 games, 'Hey this is a playoff series, let’s go out there and do it,' now it’s a concentrated effort for about two weeks.
"You try to put this on your team as a coach, bring it to these guys attention, say, 'Hey, we have to start preparing. The bell has rung, it’s playoff baseball now. Let’s go after it and see how we do.'"
It’s come down to the middle of the season’s final month in this two-month pennant race because the White Sox didn’t answer these questions the last time they had a chance, in the three-game set in Minneapolis that straddled the end of August and the beginning of September. They won in dramatic fashion in the first game of that series and flipped the calendar in first place. Then their offense went to sleep for the final two games against a Twins pitching staff that’s been quality all season long.
And that series started with the Twins on a five-game losing streak. Now they’re the winners of 10 of their last 12 games, including a sweep this weekend over the Indians.
The White Sox, meanwhile, have continued to fatten up against lesser competition, going 8-1 against the Royals, Pittsburgh Pirates and Tigers since leaving the Land of 10,000 Lakes. They might stand in a similar position to where they were at the beginning of that last series against the Twins, a first-place team swinging some ferocious bats. But when the expectations morph during winning time, into not just making the playoffs but winning in the playoffs, answering the question “can they beat good teams?” becomes pretty darn important.
No one should blame the White Sox for not taking the Tigers or the Royals for granted. That’s entirely the right approach. You’d rather be up for every game in a season where every game’s a must-win than searching for the drive to do more than sleepwalk through games you’re expected to win. And beating up on the bottom-dwellers, heck, that’s how you make the playoffs. It’s not just nice, it’s necessary.
But an all-important four-game set against the Twins means more than winning a division title in a bizarre season where winning a division title doesn’t get you as much as it has in years past. The team rolling into Guaranteed Rate Field this week is a good one. And the White Sox still need to show they can beat good teams on a regular basis, that they can win a series against good teams.
Because come October, that’s the only kind of team they’ll be facing.
“We are trying to do it with everybody we play,” Renteria said. “I know that we still have some big games ahead of us, and we are going to try to continue to do the same thing.
“We just try to win tomorrow night. We aren’t changing our approach. Take it one day at a time, one game at a time. Try to do everything we can to put ourselves in the best possible chance of winning a ballgame, and then we’ll deal with the next one after that.”