Who were those White Sox? What year is it?
The base-running mistakes, fielding flubs and a lead-blowing bullpen had White Sox fans feeling confused after Tuesday night’s 5-4 loss. That was the kind of baseball you’d expect from a 100-loss rebuilding team, not from a first-place contender up against one of the worst teams in the league.
Bad nights and bad losses have become a rarity for a White Sox team that’s climbed out of rebuilding mode and into contending mode in a hurry. It might not be realistic to expect the White Sox to play the .800 baseball they had in their previous 20 contests heading into Tuesday night’s battle with the Pittsburgh Pirates. And this is baseball, after all, where even the game’s top squads turn in clunkers over the course of what is typically a long season.
But this is the home stretch of a pennant race, too. This is a team with its eyes on an AL Central championship and an extended playoff run. And this was not the kind of thing a team that fits that description should be doing, not when the stakes are this high and the opponent is one to take advantage of.
These two dates with the Pirates are a couple of the very few remaining respites for these White Sox, who play 11 of their final 14 games against the Minnesota Twins, Cleveland Indians and the Crosstown-rival Cubs. Considering the White Sox have played five series against those three teams and won just one of them, these games against the Pirates, Detroit Tigers and Cincinnati Reds provide an opportunity to build up as many wins as possible ahead of the incredibly meaningful games to come.
Instead, the White Sox let one get away Tuesday night in the Steel City.
We’ll get to Nick Madrigal’s base-running misadventures in a bit. But the fact is the White Sox had a two-run lead entering the eighth inning, and it vanished. Specifically, Evan Marshall couldn’t hold it. Marshall has been fantastic this season — the owner of a 1.96 ERA prior to Tuesday — and doesn’t deserve to get shredded for one bad inning. But one bad inning he had, giving up three hits and a pair of runs to the first four batters he faced.
The ninth inning didn’t go any better for Ross Detwiler and Jimmy Cordero, who didn’t get an out, giving up a pair of hits and issuing an intentional walk before the game-ending play. Cordero fielded a tapper back to the mound, and in yet another ugly moment, Yasmani Grandal dropped the feed. Ballgame. Who knows if a play could have been made, but there was not even an opportunity to do so.
And then there was Madrigal, who was thrown out at home after blowing through a stop sign in the fifth inning, costing the White Sox a run, and thrown out at third trying to advance on a grounder to shortstop with one out in the ninth inning of a tie game, costing them a go-ahead runner in scoring position.
Were they rookie mistakes by a guy playing in just his 13th game as a big leaguer? Maybe. But Madrigal’s been touted as a guy with a high baseball I.Q., and that’s the way he saw things after the game.
“This one kind of hurts on my part because I know I could have done a couple things different,” he said. “I know I'm better than that. I know I'm a smarter baseball player than what I did today, especially base running. I feel like that's one of my strengths is base running and knowing the situation of the game.
“It's easy to say that on the outside, (that they were rookie mistakes and part of the learning process), but I knew in the moment, once it happened, it just wasn't a smart play. I'll clean it up. I know it's stuff I'm working on, but I expect better from myself.”
Manager Rick Renteria has seen plenty of baseball in his life, and his “that’s baseball” explanations when things go awry are indeed accurate. Even Tuesday night, that was baseball. The White Sox are a good team, and good teams have bad nights.
Take any outrage over the bullpen. There’s always outrage over the bullpen, on every team, no matter how well or how poorly it’s pitched. But the White Sox bullpen has been very good. And one night’s worth of trouble from typically reliable late-inning arms doesn’t sour what came before.
Even after Tuesday night, the team has four relief pitchers (including the injured Aaron Bummer) with sub-2.00 ERAs and six with ERAs under 3.00, Marshall being one of them.
“It’s safe to say that without those guys, we’re not where we’re at right now,” Renteria said. “I think anybody could see that. They’ve been tremendous, and today was one of those days where every single one of them was doing their thing. And I actually felt that Marsh was going to get out of that. Obviously he didn’t. But they’ve all done a great job, and they’re a big, big reason why we are where we’re at right now.”
But the errors, the miscues and especially the losses get magnified when the season gets down to its most important moments. In this most unusual of campaigns, those moments have come quickly.
The task ahead of the White Sox is showing that they can do the same kind of damage against the Twins and Indians that they’ve been able to do with relative ease against the Tigers and Kansas City Royals and teams of that ilk. The Pirates are most definitely in that department.
Nights like Tuesday will hurt regardless of who they come against the rest of the way. The White Sox are in a three-way fight for the division crown, and it doesn’t have to just look like every game matters, as players have been describing this season in that way since before it began.
But the opportunities to take advantage of lesser competition are few and getting fewer.
“That was a tough one,” starting pitcher Dylan Cease said. “But at the end of the day, we're not going to hang our heads or anything like that. We'll come back tomorrow.”