It’s all playing out just like Mama Keuchel predicted during a February dinner with her son’s new teammates in Arizona during the early days of Spring Training 1.0 before the novel Coronavirus reared its ugly head in March.
“Playoffs or die, bitches!”
Well, maybe not exactly the way she predicted. After all, I doubt that Teresa Keuchel — or anyone at that dinner — could have seen what was just around the corner, the COVID-19 pandemic, and the ensuing shut down of baseball and the majority of the country.
Nonetheless, the Keuchel matriarch’s rallying cry set the tone for a team with some lofty expectations during Spring Training in Glendale back in March.
“She doesn’t like public speaking by any means, so that was the gist of it for her to get up there and keep it light-hearted. Just say, ‘Hey, hope everyone had a great time. Good luck on the season,’ and then I had her say the b-word,” Dallas Keuchel said, per NBCSN Chicago.
Coming off an 89-loss 2019 campaign, many pundits slated the White Sox for a third-place finish in the American League Central behind the Minnesota Twins and Cleveland Indians, even with the additions of the aforementioned Keuchel and others like Yasmani Grandal, Edwin Encarnacion, Steve Cishek, Nomar Mazara, Gio Gonzalez, and the freshly extended Luis Robert and Jose Abreu.
Veterans like Keuchel and Grandal saw things differently and preached that anything less than a playoff berth in 2020 would be a disappointment.
Even after the COVID-19 pandemic rocked the country — and the world — and the 2020 MLB season was shortened to just 60 regular-season games, the White Sox held an internal feeling that they were about to do as their marketing mantra read, they were going to ‘Change the Game.’
But like many teams loaded with twenty-something-year-old kids, the White Sox stumbled out of the gates in 2020.
After dropping two-of-three to Minnesota to open the season the White Sox lost two-of-three to Cleveland and sat at 2-4 after their first six games of the season. The starting pitching looked awful to the tune of a 12.64 ERA, and if you remove Dallas Keuchel’s strong start against Minnesota the starting rotation owned a 17.42 ERA.
The offense was inconsistent, the starting pitching was abysmal, and the White Sox looked like a team that might have been a bit over-hyped by themselves and the fan base during Spring Training 2.0.
Even after sweeping Kansas City and splitting a four-game series with a Milwaukee Brewers team that many expected to be much better than what they’ve accomplished in 2020, the White Sox again looked bad in a big weekend series with the Indians — in which they lost two-of-three — and then they absolutely wet the bed in an early August affair with the lowly Tigers.
Dallas Keuchel was strong again, tossing six innings of three-run ball against Detroit on Monday, August 10, but the inconsistent Sox bats could only muster up one run in the evening and left runners on the basepaths all night long against the Tigers.
The ugly loss dropped the White Sox to 8-9, 17 games into a 60-game season. The optics were worse than the box scored portrayed as the team looked haphazard and uninterested, and Dallas Keuchel made sure they knew it after the game.
As Steve Greenberg chronicled in an August 11 story for the Chicago Sun-Times, Keuchel called the Sox “flat,” said they were “going through the motions,” suggested they’d taken “a night off” and drew a distinction between “professional at-bats” and whatever the heck the Sox were doing while scoring a total of 11 runs in that six-game stretch.
Keuchel stung the clubhouse with this sentiment: “If you love baseball,” he said, “show up to the park every day and make sure that you’re ready to go.”
The White Sox responded by taking the next two from Detroit to improve to 10-9, scoring 15 runs in those two games, but the struggles weren’t behind them just yet. After a pair of off days, the White Sox hosted a St. Louis Cardinals team that had been idle due to COVID-19 protocols, and mustered up just a measly four runs on six hits in a twin-bill embarrassment, dropping both to the Cardinals to fall under .500 once again.
Again, the frustration swelled inside the clubhouse through player comments, and externally through analysts and fans alike. Through a third of the season, the White Sox were 10-11 and looking like a third-place team.
Whether it was Keuchel’s comments earlier that week, something said in the clubhouse after the ugly double-header loss or a combination of multiple things, the White Sox took off after that point — and they haven’t looked back.
Yoan Moncada, Jose Abreu, Yasmani Grandal, and Eloy Jimenez went back-to-back-to-back-to-back in Sunday’s finale with St. Louis, the White Sox scored seven runs on eight hits and rattled off seven consecutive victories before a tough loss to Yu Darvish and the Chicago Cubs on August 23. After the series win at Wrigley Field, the White Sox had improved their record to 17-12.
The rest is history, right?
Lucas Giolito opened the Pittsburgh series by throwing the 19th no-hitter in White Sox history, they shellacked the Pirates 10-3 the next day, and really haven’t slowed down. Since the double-header loss to St. Louis, the White Sox are 22-5.
Tim Anderson entered Wednesday hitting .377 and is running away with what looks to be his second consecutive batting title. Jose Abreu is mashing his way to a potential American League MVP Award, Luis Robert is making the case for the Rookie of the Year Award, the offense is the best in baseball by many metrics, and after taking the first two games in the Minnesota series this week, the White Sox lead the American League Central by three games over the Twins and they’re six ahead of Cleveland with just 12 games left on the schedule.
The pitching staff has bounced back from its ugly opening week in a huge way, checking in at No. 2 in the American League (and No. 3 in baseball) in the ERA department. If you throw away the dismal first week, the White Sox own a 3.07 ERA since July 31, second to only the Dodgers’ 2.98 ERA.
While I’m not sure that Teresa Keuchel — or even Dallas for that matter — saw the White Sox dominating the baseball world with less than two weeks remaining in September, here we are on September 16 with the White Sox on top of both the American League Central and the American League.
“We started slowly [with a 10-11 record], but with the lineup we have now, where everybody can hit with power and everyone can run, every time we get on the field we feel invincible,” rookie center fielder Luis Robert said.
The White Sox have outscored opponents 173-82 over their last 27 games since that slow start, and they’ve now clinched their first playoff appearance since 2008 with their thrilling victory over the Twins on Thursday afternoon that gave the White Sox a series win over Minnesota and a three-game lead in the division.
Next on the to-do list is to win the American League Central crown, and in just two weeks they’ll make a long-awaited return to the MLB Postseason, with their eyes set on their first World Series Championship since 2005 — something that seemed to outsiders like an improbability just a couple months ago. Yet it was always part of the plan for White Sox players.
“Why not us?” has been a common question asked by Tim Anderson and other White Sox players, and their performance this season has validated that same question on a national stage.
“Why not the White Sox?”
Lucas Giolito said it best on Wednesday night, “the ultimate goal for us is winning the World Series, straight up.”
Featured Photo Credit: Chicago White Sox via Twitter