Tony La Russa has his fingers crossed.
So should you, if you’re a Chicago White Sox fan.
Despite a months-long coast toward the American League Central title, the Sox roadmap for October remains unclear. Which team will show up is anyone’s guess.
When revealing his fingers were crossed Tuesday before a 5-3 loss to the Detroit Tigers, La Russa was referring to whether Carlos Rodón would be able to make his next scheduled start Sept. 29, the outing that might determine whether Rodón deserves an October start against the Houston Astros, the Sox’s likely opponent in the American League Division Series.
“We’re assuming he can make one of the spots, but (Monday) was not a good day,” La Russa said of a three-inning outing in a 4-3 loss to the Tigers. “So he’s got another shot next (Wednesday), and hope there will be a better result so we can be more optimistic.”
The Sox don’t have to worry about getting into the postseason, but getting in on a positive note is another story. Sox fans have a multitude of reasons to keep their fingers crossed, including Rodón’s velocity drop, the team’s sub-.500 road record (36-39), its second-half performance (31-31), reliever Craig Kimbrel’s slump and the most glaring fear of all — an untimely injury to a key player.
The magic number to clinch the division remained two when the Cleveland Indians defeated the Kansas City Royals later Tuesday, and the Sox have lost two straight to the rebuilding Tigers. Rain is forecast for the series finale Wednesday at Comerica Park, but no matter when, where or how the Sox clinch, there’s still reason to celebrate this season.
The playoffs seemed written in stone as far back as spring training, and the waiting has been the hardest part. La Russa’s team had the division’s most lethal lineup, deepest rotation and most dominant bullpen. What could go wrong?
But that was before Eloy Jiménez ruptured a pectoral muscle trying to make a sensational catch in a meaningless exhibition game, before Luis Robert tore a hip flexor in early May and before Nick Madrigal suffered a season-ending hamstring tear in early June.
The feeling back then was the Sox still could win the division handily without three important cogs in the lineup, and the expected return of Jiménez and Robert by September meant general manager Rick Hahn wouldn’t have to acquire another outfielder at the trade deadline.
The Sox did make three significant deadline moves, acquiring relievers Kimbrel and Ryan Tepera from the Chicago Cubs in separate deals and second baseman César Hernández from the Indians to replace Madrigal, who was deemed expendable and dealt for Kimbrel.
La Russa made do over the summer with a gaggle of outfielders and infielders-turned-outfielders: Adam Eaton, Brian Goodwin, Jake Lamb, Billy Hamilton, Leury García, Andrew Vaughn, Gavin Sheets and the in-and-out-and-in-and-out-and-in Adam Engel.
On paper, it was like a variety pack of cereals that would get you through the day, even if you wouldn’t buy them in bulk. It worked well enough, and the “Eloy and Luis Show” was revived earlier than expected. Entering Tuesday’s games, Sox outfielders ranked 16th in combined OPS (.738), which is somewhat impressive considering the mix of journeymen and kids La Russa shuttled in and out.
Eaton and Lamb are gone now, but the survivors each made contributions, which could make for some interesting postseason roster decisions for Hahn and La Russa.
The rotation depth helped the Sox grab a comfortable lead before Jiménez and Robert were back in August, and though Robert has been one of the team’s biggest threats, Jiménez hasn’t provided the power surge the Sox anticipated, hitting .197 with no home runs since Aug. 31. La Russa has played him mostly in left field instead of at designated hitter, though we’ll see if the risky strategy continues in October.
Hahn has done his part, finding players who fit in the clubhouse and didn’t max out Chairman Jerry Reinsdorf’s credit card. Back in the 1970s, former Sox owner Bill Veeck declared: “We will scheme, connive, steal and do everything possible to win the pennant, except pay big salaries.” The credo remained after Veeck sold the team, and falling short on free agent Manny Machado in 2019 seemed like another example of Sox management doing just enough to look as though it was trying to compete.
But Hahn said that spring the money not spent on Machado would be pocketed for the future, and the next offseason he signed Yasmani Grandal and Dallas Keuchel, both of whom contributed to the corner-turning, shortened 2020 season. When the 2020 postseason went up in smoke with a loss to the Oakland Athletics in the division series, Hahn fired manager Rick Renteria and pitching coach Don Cooper, who was well past his expiration date.
Shockingly, the Sox hired the 76-year-old La Russa, a move deemed a makeup call by Reinsdorf for La Russa’s 1986 firing by Ken “Hawk” Harrelson. Hahn tuned out the critics and went back to work, acquiring veteran starter Lance Lynn, upgrading at closer with Liam Hendriks and taking a flier on Eaton. Two out of three ain’t bad.
The Sox were 18 games over .500 by June 17, the start of a big three-game series in Houston. But they were swept by the Astros and have gone 42-41 since June 17. That’s three months — half a season. They haven’t won three in a row since Aug. 29-Sept. 1.
The players know they need to get it together before the postseason, and they have two scheduled days off next week and a three-day break before Game 1 of the ALDS.
“It’s kind of like, ‘Hey, flip a coin (over) what’s going to happen,’ ” Keuchel said Tuesday. “Are we going to come out really strong like we know we can? Or are we going to come out and not put all three phases of the game together?
“I don’t know. I like to say I’ve seen a lot, but I know I haven’t seen it all. When that time comes, I know we’ll try our best, but I’d like to see all three phases put together.”
There’s still time for the Sox to reward their fans’ optimism.
But keep your fingers crossed, just in case.