After Alex Colomé induced a routine flyout from Willans Astudillo to close out the 4-3 White Sox winner over Minnesota on Thursday afternoon, you wouldn’t have known the White Sox achieved anything in particular from the reactions of those in uniform. Luis Robert did not raise his arms to the sky after the ball landed in his glove. Colomé did not jump into the arms of Yasmani Grandal. The celebration line looked more or less the same, with maybe a little more vigor in the high-fives and elbow bumps.
The conditions of the 2020 season are part of it. There were no fans in the stands to tip caps toward. Team personnel can’t gather in the dugouts or clubhouse like the normally would, and so reporters aren’t telling what parts of them are now beer-stained after making the postgame rounds.
There’s also the matter of how much a postseason berth means in this cursed year, when more than half of the teams will make the postseason in order to salvage a few more games from a league that lost more than 100 of them from the regular-season schedule.
I’ll start: I think it means a lot. At least it means a lot based on the way they did it.
The White Sox didn’t back into a generous postseason. They weren’t gifted a spot despite having an incomplete team of two starters and five hitters, just because enough American League clubs were either in the throes of rebuilding or in great disarray otherwise. They have 3½ starters, thank you very much, and when their lineup looks short on major-league bats, it’s either because credible young players are learning on the job, or because the White Sox don’t want to completely abandon an offseason investment.
No, they were the first American League team to clinch. They reached their 33rd win in 50 games by beating their direct rival in three of four, and they conducted themselves like the first-place team, with the Twins often looking barely hinged.
If this postseason berth feels like a knockoff, it’s not because of anything the White Sox did. It’s not their fault that 50 games are enough to clinch a spot, and they didn’t draw up a schedule where 40 percent of those games are against the Royals and Tigers. They might have played as though they drew up the divisions, because going 18-2 versus Detroit and Kansas City is ridiculous, but nothing stopped Minnesota and Cleveland from pursuing the same strategy. The Indians never apologized for riding a 17-2 record against the White Sox into a 92-win wild card season in 2013. Some of them want to use you, some of them want to be used by you.
Getting hot became the key to the season ever since the 60-game schedule was released. The Sox crossed that item off the list by going 23-6 over their last 29 games. Only three of the nine series involved might’ve been against winning teams, but the White Sox took two of those three series, and 6 of 10 games. They’re not required to do more, and they couldn’t schedule more games even if they wanted to.
(And they probably don’t want to. The White Sox had similar hot streaks in previous seasons — 25-5 in 2010, 23-10 in 2016 — that went nowhere, so I appreciate that there isn’t another 29 games around the corner to balance it out.)
It makes sense to keep the initial response at least somewhat muted, because there’s more the White Sox can accomplish over the next 10 games. There’s still the matter of home field advantage, such that it is. And it’d sure be nice to win the Central, even if they shouldn’t sell out for the division at the expense of their postseason roster alignment. The checks don’t quite cash the same this year, but winning remains winning. They can leave the contextualizing to us.
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For the time being, I’m enjoying the brief glimpses of the White Sox allowing themselves a little bit of greater recognition, most of which can be seen through Eloy Jiménez. He thumped his chest in triumph after his go-ahead double off Sergio Romo with an uncharacteristic burst of intensity before reverting to his typical catalog of less-impressed signals to the dugout
José Abreu wasn’t made available for the postgame Zoom call, but Jiménez relayed what he’d heard from the cornerstone of the White Sox lineup:
Jiménez also covered Rick Renteria in his postgame comments to Jason Benetti and Steve Stone.
But because Renteria is always available on Zoom calls pregame and postgame, he didn’t need Jiménez to speak for him. That was just a bonus.
I’ve generally been in Renteria’s corner during his time with the White Sox, because given how strangely they handled their last two managerial crises, I’m not convinced they could do better. Renteria’s done the work to earn a chance to guide a talented roster, and while he’s not a standout tactician, I don’t see any flaws unique to him.
When the Sox were rebuilding, I saw gaps that every rebuilding manager confronts — how hard to press for runs and wins for a team that isn’t talented enough to get them on a regular basis. He leaned too heavily on the bunt, and he overpoliced hustle, which are two of the hallmarks of a manager who usually gets fired a year before the team turns the corner. That dismissal never materialized, and not just because the White Sox refuse to fire a manager until it’s two years too late. Renteria managed to make it through three intentionally losing seasons without doghousing a player, and so you never heard about factions of the clubhouse tuning him out. They made a point to back him with words and actions instead. Members of his coaching staff were swapped out with no tears or threats to leave.
When Rick Hahn finally produced a lineup that could generate enough scoring chances to not sweat an individual missed opportunity, Renteria stopped bunting. When the clubhouse was secure with stable, credible presences, Renteria stopped benching. That reduced the list of complaints down to lineup cards and individual bullpen decisions, which means he achieved the status of “any other manager.”
Remember when the Yankees fired Joe Girardi, and vague rumors offered the possibility of the White Sox being interested in upgrading their managerial situation? On the same day the Sox clinched their postseason berth, here’s a passage from a story about Girardi’s Phillies:
Like Girardi said, it stinks.
And the thing that stinks most of all is the bullpen. It has given up leads all season long and did so again the last two nights.
Before the trade deadline, the Phillies’ bullpen had an ERA of 7.01.
Since the trade deadline, it’s 7.19.
The Phillies will open a series with Toronto on Friday with the majors’ worst bullpen ERA — 7.17.
The White Sox bullpen was supposed to be in similar trouble after the injuries to Aaron Bummer and Jace Fry, but Fry returned before any reckoning arrived, and Bummer might beat it, too. The core of Renteria’s bullpen is a well-paid closer, a non-roster invitee, two rookies and a waiver claim, all of whom are right-handed, and it’s good enough for the fourth-best ERA in the American League.
Philadelphia’s bullpen problems likely have little to do with Girardi’s abilities as a manager, just like the Angels aren’t 21-30 because of Joe Maddon, but considering White Sox fans wanted either helming their team right now, they’re instructive in figuring out how to regard Renteria at this point.
Renteria looks good now, but he was fine before the season, especially if you trusted him when he said he saw no reason to call bunts with this lineup. A manager basically has to enforce a certain level of standards, tolerate the inconsistency of young talent, avoid putting players in a position to fail when better options are available, protect the well being of those he’s in charge of, and realize when he’s making the same mistakes over and over again. The rest is up to the players and those who raised them or acquired them. Renteria had worked himself into the position of a respectable leader, and now he’s got the roster for it to matter.
Renteria isn’t the type to say “I told you so,” and I would advise against it even if he were. Reaching the postseason over 162 games still remains unchecked on his list, and that’s an entirely different test. Also, his first exposure to October means his decisions will be scrutinized to the most unpleasant degree.
Besides, I’m assuming Renteria will go largely unappreciated as long as he lacks a ring and Ozzie Guillen is hanging around the broadcast, so his validation will come from within. Nevertheless, he’s doing all he can at this point in this weird season, and for those with open minds, the way he wants people thinking about his team could also be applied to himself:
“Being able to do it might be more for everybody around and watching,” said manager Rick Renteria. “To give themselves a chance to say, ‘Maybe this club’s OK. Maybe the White Sox are all right.’”
(Photo by Kiyoshi Mio/Icon Sportswire)