There figured to be no bigger series for the White Sox this season than the current four-gamer against the division-rival Minnesota Twins.
And so it made sense that in the race for the AL Central crown, against one of the better teams on their 2020 schedule, the White Sox would want their top two starting pitchers, Lucas Giolito and Dallas Keuchel, pitching against their biggest competition in the battle for divisional supremacy.
But the White Sox have already established themselves as one of the better teams in the American League. And though a 5-1 loss Wednesday night pushed their clinching of the franchise's first playoff spot in a dozen years back a day, they still own the top record in the AL and have a multi-game lead on the Twins in the standings.
And so while everyone's excited to celebrate a clinch, prepping for the playoffs is beginning to become priority No. 1.
That's why Keuchel won't be coming off the injured list to start Thursday's series finale, as previously anticipated. In his place, manager Rick Renteria made known Wednesday night, it will be Reynaldo López getting the starting nod for the White Sox. Renteria said Keuchel is likely to pitch in this weekend's series against the Cincinnati Reds in Ohio.
At first blush, the thought might be: Why pitch López, who has struggled this season, against the superior Twins and send Keuchel against the Reds, who are playing better, into second place in the NL Central, but still have a sub-.500 record?
But while the White Sox focus continues to remain on winning the games in front of them, they also need to start thinking about how their starting pitchers are going to line up come playoff time. And Keuchel is obviously an integral part of that plan.
"We’re going to go ahead and see what we can do to line ourselves up as we continue to move forward," Renteria said Wednesday. "You’ll probably see Keuchel in the Cincinnati series.
"I know you guys started asking me about that (lining up pitchers for the playoffs) about a week ago, and I think I can give you a little caveat of that nature without being presumptuous, because we still have to play, we still have to win and we still have to do a lot of things still."
In order to have Keuchel throw on regular rest in one of the first two games of the opening-round, best-of-three series — which starts Sept. 29 — he'd need to start Saturday or Sunday in Cincinnati. And that seems to be what the White Sox will do. On that schedule, he'd make his final regular-season start in either the finale of a four-game set against the Cleveland Indians or the opener of the final series of the regular season against the Cubs.
The White Sox might have to make similar adjustments down the stretch.
For example, after pitching Wednesday night, Giolito's schedule would have him set up to throw in the third game (if necessary) of that opening-round series. That's not likely how the White Sox would want it, preferring him to pitch in one of the first two games. But in order to do that, he'd have to be moved around at some point in the final week and a half of the season.
Might that mean his final start of the regular season coming Monday in Cleveland, with six regular-season games remaining for the White Sox after that? Or might they have him not pitch from now until the final game of that Cleveland series, to set him up on regular rest for Game 1 of the opening playoff round? Possibilities.
Giolito had this to say on the matter Wednesday night:
"I do like having four days of rest. I like being on a normal schedule. But we'll see how it shakes out. I'm going to be prepared to pitch whether I have four days of rest or seven. I don't really care. I'm going to take the ball and give it my 100 percent when I go out there."
And then there's what the White Sox might want to do with Dane Dunning and Dylan Cease between now and the start of the postseason.
While it might seem like an awful lot of reshuffling, especially while the team is still fighting for the AL Central championship and playoff seeding, it's pretty important. The opening-round series is a best of three. If the White Sox were to lose the first two games and be quickly eliminated without throwing one of their top two pitchers, that would be quite the error.
Hence the late-season rearranging of the rotation.
So when you flip the game on Thursday afternoon and see López — who has a 5.52 ERA this season and has made it five innings in just one start (his most recent, for what it's worth) — leading the White Sox as they go for a series win against the Twins, that's why.