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Had Adam Engel missed only two weeks instead of two months, his first three games with the Charlotte Knights might have already been enough to seal his return to Chicago. He’s 5-for-12 with a homer, double and a stolen base, and he’s only struck out once over 14 plate appearances.
In terms of readying himself for the grind, there’s probably a little work left. Circumstances have conspired against him playing full consecutive days in center field. There was the day game after night game in the middle of the week, followed by a blowout, followed by a rainout.
The obstacles have bought time for Billy Hamilton, who has achieved an improbable status of “fan favorite” despite an OPS that’s languished below .600 for just about the entirety of the season. Perhaps fans are taking their cues from the clubhouse, where there’s been a concentrated effort to elevate him. We heard about Tim Anderson trying to get Hamilton to believe in his bat back in April, and James Fegan followed up a week ago by noting that Anderson was still at it.
“Build his confidence; that’s how you’re going to get the best out of him,” Anderson said. “He’s not going to just steal bases. He’s got to realize how dangerous he can be in this game. If he learns to hit, his defense is there. He can steal bases, really all angles. That’s kind of the way I go about it. It’s only right to share as much game as I can.” […]
“You don’t want to hit a groundball and try to beat it out anymore, hit the ball in the gap,” Hamilton said Anderson has stressed to him. “You’re able to drive the ball. Don’t go up there think you’re just going to be a slap hitter and just hit the ball on the ground and beat stuff out. Let those be your mistakes. Hit a groundball on a jam shot or something and then beat it out. Don’t go up there trying to do it. You’ve got to let that happen. Go up there and try to hit a base hit, then try to run.”
You can point to Hamilton’s homer off John Means on Saturday as evidence that it’s working, as long as you disregard all the times it isn’t. His game log shows a guy who has spent the year kicking out of pins, but struggling to land any blows in between. The story of his last 24 games:
- Goes 0-for-14
- Goes 4-for-4 with a triple, double, stolen base and three runs scored.
- Goes 0-for-8
- Goes 2-for-4 with another triple
- Goes 1-for-10
- Goes 1-for-3 with a homer off a Cy Young contender
But parsing performances doesn’t seem like the point, at least at this juncture. Back when the White Sox outfield had a Luis Robert refining his craft, you could gripe at La Russa praying for a Hamilton single when a home run by somebody else was needed. But Robert’s hurt, and Adam Eaton’s hitting .123/.275/.211 in the 21 games since the one against Detroit where his knee buckled three times, so the situation is dire. Just like the aftermath of a natural disaster, if a player wants to help and possesses the minimum physical capabilities, the White Sox will find some way to put him to use, even if they really wish one of them had a truck and a chainsaw.
La Russa is juggling a bag of mismatched players around the flawed fixtures of Andrew Vaughn and Leury García. Danny Mendick possesses the athleticism to be a decent defender, but his bat is doing the diminishing-returns thing again. Jake Lamb will happily yield to the center fielder, middle infielder and security guard for anything hit on the edges of his range, but at least he’s up to .231/.362/.467 on the season after his homer in the front end of Saturday’s doubleheader. And then there’s Hamilton, whose speed and defense always makes him rosterable, but man, it’d sure be great if he could offer a little more during this low-level crisis.
In this context, it makes it a lot more sense to see Hamilton’s successes celebrated so wildly.
Hamilton’s eyes widened once he knew the ball was out. And back in the dugout, the whole team buzzed with excitement. La Russa joked that he’d “love to get a copy” of the footage of his team celebrating the homer.
“I’ve actually never seen the dugout more excited, to be honest with you,” [Lance] Lynn said. “Everybody was pretty jacked.”
There’s a little bit of a risk in trumpeting Hamilton’s highs when this train doesn’t adhere to a normal schedule, as evidenced from the prolonged letdowns on previous fan-favorite third outfielders like Nicky Delmonico and Daniel Palka. That said, those guys had little to offer when their bats broke, whereas we know Hamilton will run down every fly ball and extra base within his reach. It’s much clearer what Hamilton does and doesn’t, even if Anderson wants Hamilton to ignore labels.
The hope is that Engel offers something closer to a complete solution when he’s ready. In the interim, the ragtag band of stopgaps is mostly tasked with crossing days off the calendar, which makes it all the sweeter when somebody like Hamilton is the main reason a date has a “W” next to it.
(Photo by Kamil Krzaczynski / USA TODAY Sports)