Four days ago, the White Sox clinched the franchise’s first playoff spot in a dozen years.
But is this team ready for the postseason?
The obvious answer is yes, considering how well these White Sox have played over the last month. The offense remains one of baseball’s finest, they’ve got two legitimate MVP candidates and a couple other surging hitters in the lineup, and the rotation is topped by a pair of elite arms. A week ago, the White Sox had yet to prove they could win against the kinds of good teams they’d be playing on a nightly basis come playoff time. Then they went and took three of four from the division-rival Minnesota Twins.
But one of the few guys on the roster with extensive playoff experience has a different outlook on the playoff readiness of the guys who haven’t been there before.
“You don’t need to be ready,” catcher Yasmani Grandal said last week. “Ninety percent of these guys have never been there, so don’t try to get ready for it or amp up for it.
“If you think about transferring what you did in the season to the postseason, you're going to fail. Believe me, I've been there a few times. It's a matter of who's getting hot, and it's a matter of staying within yourself. It's a matter of playing the game that you know you can play and not trying to do too much.”
But Yasmani, this team has played so well this year. It looks capable of winning it all.
“Any team is capable of winning it all. It's not who's hot during the season, it's who gets hot in the postseason,” he said. “We've seen cases like the Marlins, who came in as a wild card team and won it all, or we've seen cases like the Nationals last year, who got hot at the right time and end up cruising through and end up winning it all.
“It doesn't matter how hot you get during the season, it's who gets hot at the right time. And that's pretty much what postseason baseball is: If you get hot during the postseason, you're going to make a run at it and go all the way through it.”
Whether that means the White Sox recent mini-swoon is something to worry about or nothing to worry about remains unclear. But there’s been more than one wake-up call over the last few nights.
After winning that series against the Twins, the White Sox dropped a three-game set with the Cincinnati Reds, who are fighting for their own playoff spot. It was just the second series loss the White Sox took since mid August. Then they started another huge series, four games in four nights against the Cleveland Indians, with a 7-4 loss Monday.
This time, it wasn’t Aaron Civale shutting them down. Though one of Cleveland’s endless supply of dominant starting pitchers did thwart a couple early chances, he gave up four runs in a blink to tie the game in the fifth inning. No, it was the Indians’ bats that did the White Sox in Monday, a rarity for a team that ranks near the bottom of the league in offense. But Dane Dunning gave up a three-run homer to the scorching-hot José Ramírez in the first inning, and Carlos Santana untied things quickly with a two-run homer off Jace Fry in the fifth. Ballgame.
And here I thought it was the White Sox who were supposed to beat down the opposition with the long ball.
The loss sent the White Sox to 2-5 against the Indians on the season, with three more dates this week in The Cleve. And while there’s technically still time to tie that season record up, the struggles to this point don’t exactly bode well considering the current playoff bracket has the two division rivals meeting in the first round of postseason play.
“Don’t forget, the top four guys in their lineup are all pretty accomplished major league hitters. They’re always dangerous,” manager Rick Renteria said after Monday’s game. “I know the numbers for them don’t show as well, but that doesn’t take away what they are capable of doing, and obviously you saw a little bit of that today.
“If you go against this club or any major league club and you really don’t execute, there’s a chance that somebody could get you, and they showed that today.”
For a team that’s spent much of the season talking about treating each and every opponent the same way, that’s a key takeaway. Major League Baseball might have expanded the playoff field to include eight teams from each league, but the margin of error remains really small. It’s a best-of-three series, just like in the regular season.
The White Sox clinched their playoff spot Thursday and at that time had the top record in the AL. Had that been the final day of the regular season, they would have matched up with a team not dissimilar from the Reds, who are fighting for that last spot on the NL side of the bracket. Well, the Reds managed to beat the White Sox in a three-game series over the weekend. Had that been the wild card round, the White Sox would have been promptly eliminated from the postseason.
Of course, there’s a difference between a regular-season series with the Reds and the White Sox first playoff series since 2008, no matter how much anyone might say that they’ve been in “playoff mode” for weeks.
“The playoffs are completely different to what we're playing right now,” Grandal said. “I don't think for us this is a playoff mentality right now. The stakes in the playoffs are slightly higher, intensity gets way up there. For now, they just seem relaxed, they seem like they're confident in what they're doing. And that's a positive. You want to see that on a daily basis.”
What hasn’t been a positive were the Sunday and Monday performances of Dylan Cease and Dunning, casting some nervousness, at the very least, on what might happen should the White Sox go to a third game in the wild card round. Luis Robert had two walks for the second straight game Monday, but he was hitless, too, dropping his woeful September batting average to .097. Edwin Encarnación was 0-for-4 with a couple strikeouts Monday night, dropping his season batting average to .159. And Grandal taking a foul ball off his throwing hand certainly couldn’t be described as a highlight.
Whether it's Cease, Robert or anyone else not playing their best baseball at the moment, the clock is ticking on figuring things out in time to make an impact on the playoffs. Though with José Abreu, Tim Anderson, Eloy Jiménez and Nick Madrigal still doing their thing, it’s hardly time for the South Side to panic.
As Grandal pointed out, the playoffs are so different from the regular season — even this late in the regular season against a team the White Sox could see in the postseason a week from now — that this all might give no indicator of what comes next for the South Siders.
Another playoff veteran, though certainly not the one you’re thinking of, seemed to agree.
“In the playoffs, when you have games, that's a different animal,” pitcher Reynaldo Lopez, who pitched two postseason innings for the Nationals in 2016, said through team interpreter Billy Russo on Saturday. “The vibe, the atmosphere, you feel it in those games. It's different and everything counts: Strikes, balls, ground balls, base hits, everything counts.
“We have to be ready to make the best of that and try to help the team to win and do every little thing we can do to help the team win.”
Can they be ready? Grandal says no. But certainly picking up some last-week wins couldn’t hurt, right?