As the 2021 MLB playoffs began, many White Sox fans complained about the time of the first two games. The first game of their American League Division Series with the Astros was scheduled for 3:07 PM Central Daylight Time. The second game was scheduled for 1:07 PM CDT. “This is not fair, we deserve a better time slot,” they cried. “Why do we have to play so early?” they asked. Well, it turns out that these White Sox are obviously not ready for prime time. Maybe MLB knew what it was doing all along.
The White Sox headed for home from Houston Friday night on life support. After two mediocre attempts at playing postseason baseball, the odds of them winning this series with Houston are about as good as the odds of Tiger Woods winning the Grand Slam next year. Actually, we should never sell Tiger short. With him, you just never know. He is experienced at winning on the biggest stage, which is a foreign concept to these White Sox. Sorry, Tiger.
What Is Going On With This Team?
This is a great question, one that manager Tony La Russa and his staff will spend much time trying to dissect as the season comes to a quiet ending. How can a team that won 93 games with multiple star players missing significant amounts of time, and finished by winning six of seven, play so poorly? How is it that The White Sox have more resembled the Bad News Bears the last two days? What happened to their two “aces” in Houston? Why can’t they hit with men on base? What is going on here? Here are just a few of the issues that have popped up in the last two days.
The White Sox rotation was among the elite in the AL from the beginning of the season. It has been the strong suit of the team, carrying the team in the first half of the season when the offense was at less than full strength. Pitching is especially essential in the playoffs. The White Sox rolled out their top two pitchers, Lance Lynn and Lucas Giolito in the first two games. Lynn managed all of 3 2/3 innings, allowing five runs on six hits and two walks. Giolito was able to pitch a total of 4 1/3 innings, allowing four runs on three hits and five walks. Each walked the lead-off man twice, leading to runs every time. Their combined ERA was 10+, while their combined WHIP was 2.00. That is not going to get it done in October.
The White Sox were at or near the top of MLB in home runs since the All-Star break. While home runs generally will not carry a team through the playoffs, the Sox need to hit one every now and then if they are to compete. Yet, in hitter-friendly Minute Maid Park, they hit a total of zero home runs in two games. Even worse, and almost inexplicably, the White Sox had 18 hits in the first two games , all singles. No doubles, no triples, not even one extra-base hit. As they have also not stolen a base, they have been reduced to station-to-station baseball. This is not a recipe for playoff success.
The White Sox have been a below-average defensive team all season. Many fans feared that the issue might rear its ugly head at the wrong time. Unfortunately, their worst fears were realized in the seventh inning Friday, allowing the Astros to essentially put the game on ice. The Astros had already taken a one-run lead and had two runners on base. Carlos Correa hit a drive to right field that totally fooled Leury Garcia, who played it into a two-run double. The very next hitter, Kyle Tucker, hit a two-run home run off of beleaguered reliever Craig Kimbrel to seal the deal. One misplayed fly ball cost four big runs. That is hard to overcome in the postseason.
The Dreaded Bullpen
On Thursday, Lance McCullers, Jr. basically stole the show. The White Sox had no answer for him, and after Lynn’s poor outing, the game was essentially over. With the exception of a solo home run allowed by Reynaldo Lopez, the pen did well to stop the bleeding. However, on Friday, the bullpen blew up in the seventh inning, with an assist from Garcia, and threw the game away. Aaron Bummer began the seventh with the game tied at four. After giving up three singles and the lead, he gave way to Kimbrel. With two out, Kimbrel gave up the double by Correa to run the lead to seven to four. For good measure, Tucker took him deep, and the White Sox demise was complete. Bummer and Kimbrel had nothing at a time when the White Sox needed them most. Ouch.
Is There Any Hope For The South Siders?
Every White Sox fan knows that this is a best-of-five series. Baseball is a funny game, in that things can turn on a dime. Certainly returning home can be a big boost for the Pale Hose, who need a miracle at this point. They will likely be lifted by the blackout the team has promoted for Sunday night, a flashback to 2008. However, unlike 2008, the White Sox need to win three in a row, as opposed to a winner-take-all game. So, the question is: Can they do it?
What Needs To Happen
First of all, whoever takes the mound, whether it is Dylan Cease, Carlos Rodon, or Michael Kopech, has to come out and shut down the Astros for at least two or three innings. If the Astros come out swinging in the first inning, the White Sox hitters may press even more than they did in the first two games. Lynn and Giolito each walked the leadoff man in the second inning, helping to ignite the Astro’s offense. Whoever starts the game Sunday night must throw strikes. Walking Astro hitters is inviting trouble, as the visitors from Houston don’t need any help. It will be imperative for the Sox pitchers to limit walks, and, if possible, eliminate them altogether.
Second, the White Sox must take advantage of their scoring opportunities. They have struggled mightily in the first two games with runners in scoring. On top of that, the Sox need to find some power. It would be nearly impossible to beat a quality team like the Astros with just singles. The Sox need to find some alleys or corners, and not play station-to-station baseball. They are very capable of hitting the ball out of the park. It is well past time to start doing just that.
The White Sox also need to play better defense. While they did turn a couple of nice double plays on Friday, they must eliminate mistakes, both physical and mental. Yasmani Grandal has to be better at blocking pitches in the dirt. Lynn and Giolito each threw wild pitches in tough spots and Grandal did his pitchers no favors on either one. Garcia has to be better in the outfield. The whole team needs to avoid mental mistakes, which can be costly. One example of this was a play by Yoan Moncada in the first game, where he made a great stop of a ground ball. Then, he made a risky throw to the plate, trying to nail Jose Altuve. The throw was late, Altuve scored, and the Sox allowed another run to score later in the inning. Little things are magnified in October.
Finally, the bullpen has to tighten up and become a lockdown pen. This goes without saying, but they have to be better. It is difficult to imagine the Sox taking a run at the Astros without an effective Kimbrel. He is the lynchpin, the gateway to closer Liam Hendriks. No matter what else happens, Kimbrel must be the reliever he was during the first half with the Cubs. La Russa will also have to manage the bullpen like the maestro he was with the Cardinals. His ability to manage a bullpen was one of his main drawing cards for the White Sox. If he is unable to handle the bullpen, there is no chance that the Sox move on to the ALCS.
Don’t Go Down Without A Fight
In the end, the Sox could do all of the above, and still, come up short. They are up against a very talented and experienced Astros team, who is playing well at the right time. The Astros’ defense has been amazing to this point, while their hitters have demonstrated an ability to really make the White Sox pitchers work. However, the Sox need to take one inning, one pitch, one play at a time, and not look too far ahead. They need only to win one game at a time, and that must be their focus. That will be a tall task for the Sox, though, and they have a big mountain to climb. While we suspect that they will come up short, we also expect the South Siders to push the Astros hard when they take the field Sunday night. While the Sox are not ready for prime time, they must not, and will not go down without a fight.
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