The White Sox had a mission to get to October.
Now they’ve got a new one: Avoid stumbling into October.
For the first time since the doubleheader sweep at the hands of the St. Louis Cardinals way back on Aug. 15, the losses are starting to pile up for these White Sox. After obliterating low-level competition like the Kansas City Royals, Detroit Tigers and Pittsburgh Pirates and rocketing to the upper echelon of the American League, after taking three out of four against the division-rival Minnesota Twins last week, the White Sox have dropped four of their last five games and five of their last seven, losing a weekend series to the Cincinnati Reds and then losing the first two games of a four-game set with the Cleveland Indians.
The playoffs start in a week, and the concerns are starting to mount for a White Sox team that has altered its 2020 expectations from just reaching the playoffs to winning the World Series.
If they’re going to meet those new expectations, winning a few games down the stretch would sure figure to help.
“We need to be playing on the upswing. We don’t want to be in a lull as we continue to move through the next six days,” manager Rick Renteria said before Tuesday night’s 5-3 walk-off loss to the Indians. “We want to be moving in the right direction, at least competing in the right way. You may not win every single game, but at least showing what you’re about and the things that you’re capable of doing. That’s extremely important.”
Well, “the next six days” have turned into the next five days after one of the White Sox uglier losses in this generally feel-good campaign.
An offense that still ranks near the top of the American League in numerous categories has quieted of late. While MVP front-runner José Abreu continues to put the team on his back with well-timed RBIs — he started a four-run inning with a two-run single Monday night, then tied the game with a solo homer Tuesday — the White Sox haven’t found scoring runs as easy as they did during their torrid stretch earlier in the season.
In the five losses in their last seven games, they’ve averaged just 2.4 runs. Of course, they’ve still flexed their muscles, putting on a “light show” in their win over Trevor Bauer and the Reds on Saturday night. They hit five homers in that game, including three in a row. So the power hasn’t exactly vanished.
But whether it’s the severely slumping Luis Robert — who has a .091 batting average and 27 strikeouts in 19 games this month — the obviously not himself Yoán Moncada — who has just one hit in his last nine games — or the season-long struggles of Edwin Encarnación and Nomar Mazara, a White Sox lineup that’s been discussed as having no holes all season long suddenly doesn’t seem to fit that description so neatly. Tim Anderson is still in the chase for a second consecutive batting title, but 2-for-his-last-12, he might be as good of proof as any of how much the White Sox have relied on their heaviest hitters, their MVP candidates in Abreu and Anderson, this season.
And the pitching is hardly off the hook, either.
Dylan Cease walked seven guys as part of an 11-walk day for White Sox pitching Sunday in Cincinnati. Dane Dunning gave up the most runs he has as a big leaguer Monday, but Jace Fry giving up a homer to Carlos Santana proved the difference in that one. Tuesday, it was a bad break, Alex Colomé suffering back spasms in between the ninth and 10th innings, that pressed Matt Foster and José Ruíz into game-on-the-line duty, and José Ramírez, the hottest hitter on the planet, beat Ruíz with the walk-off homer.
It all has White Sox Twitter feeling very sour, indeed.
The White Sox themselves will try to be less reactionary, but when the losses start piling up, even the quick-trigger takes after one really tough defeat start to look more and more justifiable.
“I think today you saw a pretty good ballgame up until the end. If we win the ballgame, nobody is thinking about frustration,” Renteria said after Tuesday’s game, and he's got a point. “I think that we are handling it well. I think all and all, having conversations with all these guys, they know where we are at. They know it’s not about talking about it. It’s about going out there and performing.
“We have five games left. We have to put ourselves on track. That was the whole idea today. … These guys have been really, really good all year long. Right now we have to continue to play. There’s nothing else to do. You can’t put your head down. You have to keep playing.”
Stretches like this aren’t uncommon for even the best baseball teams out there. But this weird season has magnified each and every game. And when the White Sox were humming along like an unstoppable force for weeks and now suddenly stumble right before, as Dallas Keuchel called them over the weekend, “the real games,” the level of concern, at least on the outside, jumps.
Inside, even if they're nowhere near mashing the panic button, the White Sox face a new challenge. They’re tasked with making sure a handful of losses doesn’t knock them off their game at the absolute worst time.
Doing so won’t be easy, either, as the competition has stepped up in a big way with no chance of slowing down. The next two nights in Cleveland bring matchups against the Indians’ top two arms, Shane Bieber and Zach Plesac. Then it’s the Crosstown-rival Cubs to close out the regular season. They have their own set of offensive woes, but the intensity of a Crosstown series might not take time off for a couple teams that have already punched their playoff tickets.
Earlier Tuesday, the talk was about how an early exit would suddenly count as a disappointment. Now, the White Sox have to prevent that kind of thing from happening before the playoffs even start.
“When we go out and we take the field, we do that thinking of winning, we do that with a positive mind,” pitcher Reynaldo López said through team interpreter Billy Russo. “No matter what happens, if we win or if we lose, we just try to keep positive and we try to come every day and do what we can do.
“On days like today, we just have to turn the page and show up tomorrow with the same energy, the same commitment to compete and to win, and whatever happens during the game happens. That's part of the game, that's baseball.
“We win or lose together.”