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Sox rotation strong, but other areas raise playoff questions

/ by Vinnie Duber
Presented By Nationwide Insurance Agent Jeff Vukovich
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Another night in Toronto, another stellar starting-pitching effort by the Chicago White Sox.

"We're a very tight-knit group, our rotation, our five guys. We like to feed off each other," White Sox starting pitcher Lucas Giolito said after allowing one run in seven innings Wednesday night. "I saw what Dylan (Cease) did last night, and I wanted to match that or be better.

"We like to motivate each other. We're always communicating, observing each other and making each other better. That's what it's all about."

RELATED: Cease shows Sox' rotation will be biggest October strength

Unfortunately, that's not what it's all about when it comes to winning baseball games, because through the first three games of the South Siders' trip to Canada, they won just once.

While the starting pitching has looked championship-caliber in recent days, the wins have not come in commensurate fashion, and the thing worth paying the most attention to during this stretch of series against other American League contenders, the offense, has raised some potential red flags ahead of October.

In the last five games — two against the Tampa Bay Rays and three against the Toronto Blue Jays — the White Sox have scored 11 runs. They've mustered seven runs in three days north of the border, and in those three contests, they've banged out a whopping 30 hits. All but three have been singles.

Similarly, the bullpen has been on the mound in the eighth inning when the two losses to the Blue Jays went south. Now, that's not to suggest that the relief corps melted down in each of those games, and White Sox manager Tony La Russa bristled at the suggestion that it did when he spoke after Wednesday's 3-1 loss. But Craig Kimbrel threw a wild pitch that cost his team Monday, and Aaron Bummer allowed three consecutive two-out hits that made the difference Wednesday.

 

As the starting rotation continues to set up as the White Sox' biggest strength heading toward the postseason — and Carlos Rodón's return Thursday figures to further solidify that idea — the rest of the team has left fans wanting when it comes to mapping out its potential playoff impact.

Now, the offense has some transforming left to do, no doubt about it. No. 1 catcher Yasmani Grandal's return from knee surgery is "imminent," La Russa said Wednesday. When he went down with a torn tendon in his knee in early July, he was the team's hottest hitter, and he figures to provide a similar jolt to the one Eloy Jiménez and Luis Robert did when they made their respective comebacks from significant injuries.

Likewise, Tim Anderson was back Wednesday after missing the previous four games while resting sore legs, partially in an effort to make sure he's 100 percent for the playoffs. He was 0-for-4 on Wednesday, not exactly providing an instant spark. But more Anderson is always preferable to less Anderson for these White Sox, and the recent offensive trends can't be viewed without acknowledging their leadoff man has been missing.

Will those two returns solve all the problems? Who knows? After Thursday's series finale in Toronto, the White Sox will likely get the best cure they can ask for: five straight games against the Chicago Cubs and Pittsburgh Pirates. Three against the Kansas City Royals follow before more tests against the Oakland Athletics and Boston Red Sox.

But that was a big point of interest during this stretch, to find out whether the White Sox offense could hit with the big boys.

We knew they could pitch with anybody, but what could the bats do against quality pitching from playoff-caliber staffs? Though there's still one game to play on this trip, it seems the previous trends have held mostly true: The White Sox were far more competitive, from an offensive standpoint, on the South Side than they were away from home. Though they scored 17 runs in three days against the New York Yankees (one of those games was played in Iowa) and 21 runs in four days against the A's at home, they've been far less productive against the Rays and Blue Jays.

That might not mean anything in a month, when they hope to be firing on all cylinders heading into the playoffs. But it's been difficult to ignore.

 

"I'm not too concerned with where we're at right now," Giolito said. "I think it's just some guys, offensively, just not getting those big hits in certain situations, not being able to string things together. But I think that our approach is very solid.

"Just kind of how it's going, but I think that guys are working through stuff. We have a lot of confidence — always, no matter what — a lot of confidence in each other and we're able to pick each other up.

"We'll start to get hot again and play some really, really solid baseball leading up to the playoffs."

That's been a consistent chorus coming from the White Sox, a team whose postseason veterans know that it's about getting hot at the right time heading into October. The White Sox have adopted that mentality as a group, and it's hard to argue with that logic. Offensively, you can see it being the case, considering this lineup has yet to play together as one healthy unit all season.

The starting staff's season-long dominance can provide plenty of confidence, too. But the bullpen has inarguably failed to live up to the sky-high expectations it had for itself in the preseason. Aside from Liam Hendriks — who despite being well deserving of his All-Star status has had his own notable stumbles — and Michael Kopech, the relief corps has been searching for consistency from the start. Kimbrel's continued adjustments to a new eighth-inning role have kept the spotlight bright on the team's big trade-deadline acquisition. And Bummer, who has seemed much improved of late, hasn't completely exorcised his bad-luck demons, as evidenced by the weak hits he gave up Wednesday.

What's it all mean? It means that we're no closer to answering the question of whether the White Sox can beat good teams than we were at the beginning of this four-series stretch in the schedule.

If you ask the White Sox, they'll say it doesn't matter, and they certainly could be right. All teams go through stretches of quiet offense over the course of baseball's six-month slog, and it's extraordinarily possible that the last few days will be wholly unrepresentative of the way the team's playing at the end of September. The White Sox bullpen, for all its struggles, is still loaded with talent, still a potentially scary proposition for opponents, even playoff-type ones.

But the questions aren't going anywhere.

And while there might be plenty of confidence in what's been a championship-caliber starting rotation, it will remain a wonder whether the rest of the White Sox roster can get things up to championship caliber by the time the postseason rolls around in a little more than a month.

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