CHICAGO — Nothing was settled on the south side of Chicago this week. No message was sent prior to a possible ALCS preview. No pecking order was established in the junior circuit.
Still, there is one snapshot that can be taken now that the three-game series between the Chicago White Sox and Tampa Bay Rays is over. The Rays entered the series with the best win rate in baseball. After Wednesday’s roller coaster ride of a game, that team is now the White Sox.
Benefits of a half game in mid-June don’t mean much in the grand scheme of things. The bigger story for the White Sox is not where they are, but how they got there.
The White Sox dramatically won the rubber game of the three-game set, winning 8-7 on Yasmani Grandal’s game-winning double in the 10th inning. The teams are now going their separate ways, with Chicago leading by half a game for the best record in the circuit and the best record in baseball, pending the outcome of the late game of the San Francisco Giants on Wednesday.
It’s worth noting, as the White Sox defeated the AL’s defending champion Rays, with five regulars from the lineup. It’s worth noting as many of the reserves that populate Tony La Russa’s lineup contributed to the win. And it’s worth noting, because with every obstacle, the White Sox horde, they look like a club planning to make this year their year.
“The nine guys who went to play were the nine guys who went to play,” White Sox manager Tony La Russa said of his patchwork lineup. “You have some setups you have to do [out of necessity], and it’s always impressive when they play like they did today.”
Eloy Jimenez, who injured himself trying to climb the wall chasing a flying ball during spring practice, was the first starter to lose to the White Sox. He has since been eliminated every game and this week he was cleared to resume baseball activities.
Jimenez’s primary replacement in left field is rookie Andrew Vaughn, a touted contender with the defensive profile of a lamppost. But despite a 30-degree pace and a future as a first base/DH type, Vaughn has held on to his defense in a position he’d never played before. His promising bat gave only a glimpse of things to come, but on Wednesday, he had three basehits, including a double, and scored three runs, including the game winner.
The second starter to lose to the White Sox was all-everything centerfielder Luis Robert, who crashed in May with a hip injury that would keep him out for three or four months. His primary replacement was veteran speedster Billy Hamilton, as Chicago’s backup center fielder, Adam Engel, was also injured.
Hamilton proved some spark with a few hits, played exciting defense and, as always, added value with his legs. Then he also got injured, and so Wednesday’s starter in the center was veteran journeyman Brian Goodwin, who went to spring practice with the humble Pirates, didn’t make it on opening day and signed with the White Sox in May.
Goodwin has had a .983 OPS during his short time with the White Sox. He played a key role on Wednesday, when his sacrifice bunt attempt turned into a throwing error by Tampa Bay’s Yandy Diaz, scoring a run and fueling a three-run Chicago rally.
The third starter to lose to the White Sox was second baseman Nick “Nicky Two-Strikes” Madrigal, whose torn hamstring turned into season-ending surgery. Both his replacements were in the lineup on Wednesday as Chicago’s regular third baseman – Yoan Moncada, who has an All-Star-level season and was the fourth missing White Sox regular – was out due to a sinus infection.
Those replacements are ostensibly Chicago’s first and second stringed instruments, Leury Garcia and Danny Mendick. Garcia has played everywhere during his years with the White Sox and has become a favorite of La Russa. He had a hit and a run in place of Moncada on Wednesday.
Mendick is a brave, light infielder who has a window to impress the White Sox buyers, who have almost certainly been sticking out feelers around baseball in search of an everyday second baseman. He didn’t help his case on Wednesday, going 0-for-3 before committing an error in the eighth inning that led to two tying unearned runs. After the mistake, he apologized in the dugout at La Russa. He then led off the ninth with a double, although he ended up stranded on third base.
“He apologized for the mistake, and I said, ‘Don’t apologize unless you don’t try your best.'” La Russa said. “I mean, this club, they’ve got it really good. It’s very special.”
The other regular missing on Wednesday was the right fielder, who was mainly Adam Eaton, but could also be Engel, as the Rays started left-handed Ryan Yarbrough. But La Russa wanted to give Engel a day off, and Eaton struggled with a .195 average in a mostly mundane role. On the right was Jake Lamb, a third base starter for the playoff-bound Arizona Diamondbacks just a few years ago, but who has only tried to stay with a team for the last few years. Lam was released by the Braves at the end of spring training.
Lamb has helped Vaughn fill Jimenez’s left void and now assists on both outfield corners, neither of which are his position, while providing strength and patience at the plate. Against the Rays on Wednesday, he had an RBI single and walked. Everyone participates.
“It’s not a 25 or 26 man roster, it’s a 40 man roster,” Grandal said. “We all need to get where we want to go and reach our goal. The fact that we’ve had guys from the bench who did a good job and helped us win, you look at all the good teams and have them all guys coming off the couch and helping them win.”
The White Sox still have a star in their lineup, despite the types of injuries so many teams have faced this season. Jose Abreu remains a fixture; he opened the score on Wednesday with a two-run homer. Tim Anderson still powers the charge from the leadoff position.
Still, this has been a different White Sox offense than we thought we saw, at least in terms of identity. The group’s potential was fully anticipated and delivered as Chicago was one of the top five scoring offenses all season.
Madrigal won’t be back in 2021, but as Hahn said before the game, Jimenez and Robert are both making progress, and if the void at second base can be stabilized, the White Sox could make it into the postseason not just with an elite record, but with the best version of the entire season’s roster.
“This is a team that has not only been resilient, but also fun to watch,” White Sox GM Rick Hahn said before the game. “Although the games were intense in a play-off-like intensity, that’s why we’re doing this.
Plug hole after emergency stop, almost every replacement Hahn has supplied and La Russa hooked up has helped. The result to date is the best record in the American League.
In a season that has given South Siders plenty of cause for concern, that’s pretty exciting. That fever was on display as the White Sox overcame the Rays at the end, as everyone rushed out of the dugout to populate Grandal on the field, and 20,098 fans screaming their lungs out under a clear late spring sky, another obstacle in a season full of them out of the way.
And why shouldn’t they scream? Numerous teams have dealt with injuries and COVID-19 uncertainty and all sorts of residual 2020 weirdness. But in the AL, after Wednesday, only one can say it has cleared all the obstacles on its way to the league’s best record. At the moment it’s the White Sox.
“This one here is going to be [a] goalkeeper,” said La Russa. “Because of the contributions of the guys who had to play. That’s special stuff, up and down the lineup.”
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