Forget it being just a playoff preview.
This is a potential ALCS preview.
The two best teams in baseball are meeting this week on the South Side, bringing an October kind of vibe to the middle of June.
The Chicago White Sox started the week with a .631 winning percentage, in first place in the AL Central. The Tampa Bay Rays had them bested by just a smidge, the reigning AL champs owning a .636 winning percentage while sitting atop the AL East. It’s the first time the White Sox have been involved in such a showdown, between the teams with the game’s best winning percentages, in 15 years.
Indeed, these two groups have solidified themselves as contenders. The White Sox ridiculous plus-106 run differential was baseball’s best entering Monday; the Rays ranked third at plus-84. The White Sox and Rays went 1-2 in ERA, too, pitching providing the propulsion for both teams.
“They're very, very impressive,” White Sox manager Tony La Russa said before Monday night’s game. “I actually think there's a lot of things that our two clubs have in common, about playing nine innings, giving a lot of priorities to defense and baserunning and taking at-bats the best you can. We both are pitching well.
“I think it's going to be a fun competition. ... Being from Tampa, I've admired the work (Rays manager Kevin Cash) has done. They're for real. And like I said, fine competition. Looking forward to playing them.”
As similar as the teams seem at the moment in their June excellence, there are obvious differences, ones the White Sox will have with any fellow contenders who have been around the block before. As good as the White Sox have been, they’re still on the climb up baseball’s mountain, coming out of rebuilding mode and chasing the game’s ultimate goal.
The Rays haven’t won a World Series, though they were darn close just a few months ago, falling to the Los Angeles Dodgers in the championship round after winning the AL pennant. The Rays have established themselves as perhaps baseball’s best-run franchise, a team that keeps wowing, keeps contending, despite player turnover and the cost restrictions of playing in a smaller market. They remain baseball’s best team just months after dealing away the ace of their starting rotation.
The White Sox rebuilding project was intended to accomplish multiple goals: reaching contender status and staying there. The Rays, through continuous work, have accomplished both.
Now the White Sox see their turn. And when it comes to matching up with any elite pitching staff, they’ve had the stuff so far. Lance Lynn and Carlos Rodón are two of the leading candidates for the AL Cy Young Award. Lucas Giolito and Dallas Keuchel are established as reliable top-of-the-rotation guys. And Dylan Cease keeps pummeling the Detroit Tigers with his oft-dubbed “nasty” arsenal.
But in how Cease has amazed lies another area in which the White Sox are still chasing the Rays.
The Rays entered Monday with a terrific 26-16 record against teams over .500. The only team in baseball with more wins was the Houston Astros (who the White Sox see next). The White Sox were 11-16 in the same category. No team in the AL had fewer wins against above-.500 teams.
That, of course, has plenty to do with the schedule. The Rays play in a highly competitive division, where they’re busy fending off contenders from Boston, Toronto and The Bronx. Meanwhile, the White Sox play in a division with just one current threat to their status as top dog — and the Cleveland Indians were five and a half games out of first on Monday.
It’s certainly not a signal that the White Sox success has been smoke and mirrors. But as the old saying goes, to be the best, you’ve got to beat the best.
Remember what Aaron Bummer said during the offseason. He was then talking about the White Sox chasing the Minnesota Twins, who started 2021 as the back-to-back Central champs. But it very much applies to the White Sox and a team that actually carried over its success from last season to this one, the visiting Rays.
“I’m a believer that you’ve got to take down the champs. You’re not the favorite until you’re standing on the top,” he said on the White Sox Talk Podcast. “I want to go out there and take it from them. So I’m not going to call myself the favorite, and I’m not going to crown ourselves anything until we go out and take it from them.
“That’s the mindset that I have is that I want to go out there and take it, I don’t want to be handed anything.”
The Rays are the champs of the Junior Circuit until they’re not, and it’s the White Sox aiming to steal their crown.
There will be no trophy handed out at the end of this three-game set in June, but the White Sox can show how worthy they are of the elite status the numbers put them in — and show how deep they can go come October — with a strong showing this week against a team that made it all the way to end last year.