For hurting White Sox, a chance to get better
By Scott Miller
Chicago White Sox outfielder Andrew Vaughn grew up in Santa Rosa, a Northern California town best known for its wineries and as the home of cartoonist Charles M. Schulz. Vaughn said his father knew Schulz, the creator of the “Peanuts” comic strip, a little and spent a lot of time at Snoopy’s Home Ice, an ice rink in town.
As for himself, Vaughn said, he bypassed the rink because he did not trust the blades.
“I didn’t want to lose my fingers,” Vaughn said.
As the White Sox continue slipping and sliding through a disappointing summer, what has become readily apparent is that a team ravaged by injuries is leaning harder than ever on the good hands and unexpected production of guys like Vaughn. And the team’s best chance to regain its grip on the American League Central began Monday night, when the White Sox were to play the first of 19 consecutive games against division rivals Minnesota, Detroit and Cleveland.
Fifteen of those games are against the two teams ahead of them in the standings, the Twins and the Guardians. On Sunday, Chicago beat the Giants in San Francisco 13-4 to complete a three-game sweep heading into a stretch that seems likely to set the tone for the rest of the White Sox season.
“One hundred percent,” said Vaughn, who led the team in batting average (.301) through Sunday and was second in doubles (14) and on-base plus slugging percentage (.806). “We’ve got to go play our game, take advantage of opportunities and play well.”
“I’m excited,” manager Tony La Russa said. “We’ve got our pitching lined up.”
The pitching is no small part of the equation. Lance Lynn injured his right knee in spring training and did not make his first start until June 13. La Russa said that having Lynn, Lucas Giolito (who allowed one run over six innings Sunday), Michael Kopech, Dylan Cease and Johnny Cueto finally up and running together “is the most positive thing we’ve got going.”
Closer Liam Hendriks, who was 16 for 19 in save opportunities before straining the flexor tendon in his forearm on June 10, is close to returning.
La Russa is loath to discuss the squad’s plethora of injuries, noting that such troubles are not unique to his team after a truncated spring training. But with the White Sox, it is not just the number of injuries, it is who has been injured. The Sox rank fourth in the majors in most money spent on injured list players ($22,578,203), according to Spotrac.
Much of the team’s drop-off can be explained by those absences.
Last season, Lynn ranked first in the AL in ERA (2.69) and opponents’ OPS (.605) and second in opponents’ batting average (.209) among pitchers who threw more than 150 innings. He has thrown only 22 innings this season.
Third baseman Yoan Moncada was third in the AL with a .375 on-base percentage last season and his 33 doubles led the White Sox. He started the season on the IL with an oblique strain, returned May 9, hurt his quad, and then went back on the IL with a strained hamstring. After going 0 for 5 with two strikeouts Sunday, he had played in only 34 games this year and was hitting .181 with a .230 on-base percentage.
Activated last Tuesday in Anaheim, Moncada, 27, showed flashes of his old self, going 2 for 5 with a double and two RBIs. Then he fouled a ball off his right foot during Wednesday’s game, went for X-rays and finished the night with his foot wrapped in ice.
Even with Moncada’s return, the White Sox have nine players on the IL, including outfielders Eloy Jiménez and Adam Engel, catcher Yasmani Grandal, reliever Aaron Bummer and infielder Danny Mendick.
That is why Vaughn, Chicago’s first-round pick (third overall) in the 2019 draft, has been so valuable. Through Sunday, he was ranked fifth in the AL with a .348 batting average with runners in scoring position. He was also hitting .353 in road games, third in the majors. On Sunday, Vaughn went 2 for 6 with three RBIs.
“Most days, if not all days, he’s as good as any hitter we have on the team,” La Russa said. “He is smart, he adjusts, he takes instruction well. He’s a hungry hitter.”
The injuries and losses have conspired to add not only frustration to the Sox season, but dashes of controversy and confusion as well.
In a surprising move for a team with an old-school manager like La Russa, the short-handed White Sox have advised Tim Anderson, Luis Robert, José Abreu and others not to run hard on plays that appear to be routine outs. It is based on advice from the team’s training staff, who are trying to preserve the players’ legs.
It is unconventional at the very least, and an especially odd decision to publicize. But La Russa wants the fans to understand that his guys are giving it their all, even in moments when it may not appear that way.
“If you know you’re going to be out, if you hit the ball hard to second base, you know you’re playing at the professional level and guys know how to catch and throw the ball,” Anderson said. “Skip and the training staff know what’s best for the players. We just follow their lead.”
La Russa, 77, has been under fire personally in some quarters since last month when he ordered a two-strike, intentional walk to Trea Turner during a game against the Los Angeles Dodgers. Trailing 7-5 in the sixth inning, the Sox watched as Max Muncy followed the intentional walk by smashing a three-run homer in a game the Dodgers eventually won 11-9. The strategy was more defensible than it seemed: Lifetime, Turner was hitting .254 in 1-2 counts against left-handed pitchers, and this season he was hitting .333 in 1-2 counts. Muncy was hitting .159 at the time.
Regardless, periodic chants of “Fire Tony!” have been heard at Guaranteed Rate Field ever since. La Russa says he likes the fans’ passion and would rather have that than apathy. White Sox players shrug it off.
“That’s why you get yourself a good set of ear plugs and don’t pay attention to it, man,” Anderson said of the excess noise that has accompanied the team’s on-field frustrations this year, from the La Russa negativity to the episode involving Josh Donaldson of the New York Yankees, who was suspended for disrespectful comments toward Anderson.
Yes, several White Sox players said, they understand the growing frustration. But they also expect to improve as key players return to active duty and they say it is too early to obsess over the standings.
“The thing is, we keep getting asked that question,” Kopech said. “How does it feel? Nobody likes to lose. We’re not happy. We’re not winning, but nobody’s panicking. We know we can turn it around tomorrow.”
With 15 games against Minnesota and Cleveland on deck over the next three weeks, tomorrow is here.