No, this is not what a vault into contention mode is supposed to look like.
In their first five games of the most anticipated season of South Side baseball in years, the White Sox are off to a 1-4 start that despite a new cast of characters has looked a little too similar to the 284 losses of 2017, 2018 and 2019.
Yes, Luis Robert is patrolling the outfield now and catching all the fly balls.
Yes, Dallas Keuchel spent his first day on the mound doing his best Mark Buehrle impression.
Yes, Yoán Moncada and José Abreu and Edwin Encarnación and Eloy Jiménez have homered in the middle of the lineup.
But a string of poor performances from the starting pitchers and injury-induced playing time for familiar rebuilding-era faces like Nicky Delmonico have certain White Sox fans unable to see the start of a supposed new era. Instead, their team sits at the bottom of the AL Central standings, dealt four losses in five games by the teams they’re trying to leapfrog: the Minnesota Twins and the Cleveland Indians.
In a normal season, a 1-4 start would perhaps be irritating but it would hardly be reason for doom and gloom. There’d be six more months of baseball ahead, plenty of time for a team that still needs to learn how to win to figure out how to do so, for all the parts of this reconstructed roster to come together over the course of a 162-game campaign. Last year, the Washington Nationals were a fourth-place team in mid June and ended up winning the World Series.
But that’s not going to be possible in 2020, with the COVID-19 pandemic and fruitless negotiations between Major League Baseball and the players’ union squeezing the schedule down to just 60 games. Indeed, after Wednesday's series finale in Cleveland, the White Sox will already be 10 percent of the way through the regular season. And while an expanded playoff field creates far greater opportunity to end the franchise’s dozen-year postseason drought, every player on the roster spent “Summer Camp” talking about the importance of a fast start to this so-called sprint.
Well, the White Sox have not started fast.
The rational out there will realize this has been just five games, just one turn through the starting rotation. But the air is undoubtedly being let out of the balloon a little bit, months of talk about postseason expectations and how this team can compete with anyone quickly being forgotten after the powerful Twins thumped the pitching staff and the dealing Indians quieted the remade lineup.
You won’t catch anyone in the White Sox clubhouse freaking out. But their calmness isn’t going to be shared by those who smashed the panic button when Lucas Giolito’s first pitch of the season was sent out for a home run.
“My personality, I don't panic very much. I'm not much of a panicker,” manager Rick Renteria said after the White Sox dropped both games of Tuesday’s doubleheader in Cleveland. “I went into the clubhouse and said, ‘Hey guys keep your heads up. We've got to keep playing, and tomorrow's another day.’ It's just baseball, and everybody knows that once you start running a little hot, a lot of things are forgotten. But we've got to do it, in order to forget what we want to forget.
“I know that everybody's looking to all the records right now, but it's kind of irrelevant to me right now. I'm more concerned with us really continuing to push and find a little rhythm, and once we do, I think we'll be able to run with it.”
Obviously it is true that things can change pretty quick, and perhaps even more so in this most unusual of seasons. While a bad five-game stretch to get things started has seen the dark clouds roll in in a hurry, a positive five-game stretch, and the standings get all jumbled up again. Playing from behind is obviously a problem — something the White Sox know well, considering the 13 runs their pitchers have given up in the first inning in five games — but hot streaks in 2020 can be as impactful as cold snaps.
“It’s frustrating, whether it’s a 60-game season or a 162-game season, you want to get off to a good start,” White Sox catcher James McCann said. “Obviously, the pressure is a little bit more in a 60-game season. We know there’s a sense of urgency. … We could just as easily reel off five or six wins in a row.”
There’s been much social-media consternation over Renteria’ daily lineups — the kind of thing that happens when a team sets its sights on October — but Delmonico nor Leury García nor Renteria are the ones coughing up first-inning home runs. The starting pitching has been this team’s biggest bugaboo. Perhaps poundings are unavoidable against the homer-happy Twins. But Dylan Cease and Carlos Rodón combined to allow nine runs in just six innings across two games with the Indians on Tuesday.
And though the White Sox offense doesn’t have all its parts at the moment — Jiménez hasn’t been cleared after whacking his head against the outfield wall Sunday, and Nomar Mazara has been out of action for a week and a half for unspecified reasons — a lineup that’s supposed to keep this team in every game couldn’t close a pair of relatively meager gaps against an excellent Indians pitching staff Tuesday, leaving 16 men on base over the course of two games. This two days after it managed just two runs in a 14-2 drubbing against the Twins.
This six-game stretch against the two top teams in the division was always going to be hard. But it was also going to be important, a time for the White Sox to find out how they stacked up. It proved a little too difficult for these White Sox at this moment in time.
It seems a little crazy to be suggesting this a mere five games into a season, but we can only go by what the players themselves told us. And they told us a fast start was critical.
“It’s that sprint. It’s no longer that marathon where you can kind of get off to a shaky start or even kind of an indifferent start,” Keuchel said during “Summer Camp.” “I feel like this team is going to go either really, really good or really bad to start. I would like to think we are going to go really good to start. We have the youth, we have the talent.
“It’s just really who gets out to that hot start and kind of continues it. Nobody knows what that’s going to be like until we step on that field (July 24).”
It’s July 28. And the White Sox did not start hot. Is this the start of something “really bad”? Time will tell. Just remember, there's not as much time as there typically is.
“We'll keep moving along,” Renteria said. “Obviously we have to do it sooner rather than later, everybody understands that, to give ourselves a chance. So that's what we've got to try to do.”