Injuries couldn’t stop the Chicago White Sox from dominating

CHICAGO — There was nothing settled this week on the South Side of Chicago. No message was sent in advance of a possible ALCS preview. No pecking order was established in the junior circuit.

Yet there is one snapshot that can be taken now that the three-game series between the Chicago White Sox and Tampa Bay Rays is over. The Rays entered the series with baseball’s best winning percentage. After Wednesday’s rollercoaster ride of a contest, that team is now the White Sox.

Half-game advantages in the middle of June don’t mean a whole lot in the grand scheme of things. The bigger story for the White Sox is not where they’re at but how they’ve gotten there.

The White Sox took the rubber game of the three-game set in dramatic fashion, winning 8-7 on Yasmani Grandal‘s game-winning double in the 10th inning. The teams now go their separate ways, with Chicago holding a half-game lead for the best record in the circuit and the best record in baseball, pending the outcome of the San Francisco Giants’ late game Wednesday.

It’s worth noticing because the White Sox beat the Rays, the AL’s defending champs, with five regulars out of the lineup. It’s worth noticing because many of the reserves populating Tony La Russa’s lineup contributed to the win. And it’s worth noticing because with every obstacle the White Sox hurdle, they look like a club intent on making this year their year.

“The nine guys who were going to play were the nine guys who were going to play,” White Sox manager Tony La Russa said of his patchwork lineup. “You have some lineups that you have to do [out of necessity], and it’s always impressive when they play like they did today.”

Eloy Jimenez, who hurt himself while trying to climb the wall in pursuit of a fly ball during spring training, was the first starter the White Sox lost. He has been out every game since and just this week was cleared to resume baseball activities.

Jimenez’s primary replacement in left field has been rookie Andrew Vaughn, a touted hitting prospect with the defensive profile of a lamp post. Yet despite 30-grade speed and a future as a first base/DH type, Vaughn has held up on defense at a position he’d never played. His promising bat has provided only glimpses of what’s to come, but on Wednesday, he had three hits, including a double, and scored three times, including the game winner.

The second starter the White Sox lost was all-everything centerfielder Luis Robert, who went down with a hip injury in May that figures to keep him on the shelf for three or four months. His primary replacement was veteran speedster Billy Hamilton, because Chicago’s backup center fielder, Adam Engel, was also injured.

Hamilton proved some spark with a couple of big hits, played exciting defense and as ever added value with his legs. Then he, too, got hurt, and so Wednesday’s starter in center was veteran journeyman Brian Goodwin, who went to spring training with the lowly Pirates, didn’t make the opening day roster, and signed with the White Sox in May.

Goodwin has had a .983 OPS during his brief time with the White Sox. He figured into a key play on Wednesday, when his sacrifice bunt attempt turned into a throwing error by Tampa Bay’s Yandy Diaz, scoring a run and fueling a three-run Chicago rally.

The third starter the White Sox lost was second baseman Nick “Nicky Two-Strikes” Madrigal, whose torn hamstring turned into season-ending surgery. Both of his replacements were in Wednesday’s lineup because Chicago’s regular third baseman — Yoan Moncada, who is having an All-Star-level season and was the fourth missing White Sox regular — has been out because of a sinus infection.

Those replacements are ostensibly Chicago’s first- and second-string utility players, Leury Garcia and Danny Mendick. Garcia has played all over during his years with the White Sox and has turned into a La Russa favorite. He had a hit and a run on Wednesday starting in Moncada’s stead.

Mendick is a plucky, light-hitting infielder who has a window to impress the White Sox brass, who almost assuredly have put out feelers around baseball in search of an everyday second baseman. He didn’t help his cause on Wednesday, going 0-for-3 before committing an eighth-inning error that led to two game-tying unearned runs. After the error, he apologized to La Russa in the dugout. Then he led off the ninth with a double, though he ended up stranded on third base.

“He apologized for the error, and I said, ‘Don’t apologize unless you don’t try hard.'” La Russa said. “I mean, this club, they’ve really got their act together. It’s very special.”

The other regular missing on Wednesday was the right fielder, who has primarily been Adam Eaton, but might have been Engel, because the Rays started lefty Ryan Yarbrough. But La Russa wanted to give Engel a day off, and Eaton has struggled with a .195 average in a mostly everyday role. In right was Jake Lamb, a starter at third base for the playoff-bound Arizona Diamondbacks only a few years ago, but who the last couple of years has just been trying to stick with a team. Lamb was released by the Braves at the end of spring training.

Lamb has helped Vaughn fill Jimenez’s void in left, and now is helping on both outfield corners, neither of which are his position, while providing power and patience at the plate. Against the Rays on Wednesday, he had an RBI single and walked. Everybody chips in.

“It’s not a 25- or 26-man roster, it’s a 40-man roster,” Grandal said. “It takes all of us to make it to where we want to go and reach our goal. The fact that we’ve had guys coming off the bench and doing a good job and helping us win, you watch all the good teams and they all have guys coming off the bench and helping them win.”

The White Sox still have star power in their lineup despite the kind of injury spate that so many teams have dealt with this season. Jose Abreu remains a fixture; he opened the scoring on Wednesday with a two-run homer. Tim Anderson is still powering the attack from the leadoff position.

Still, this has been a different White Sox offense than we thought we’d see, at least in terms of identity. The potency of the group was fully anticipated and has been delivered, as Chicago has been one of the top five scoring offenses all season.

Madrigal won’t be back in 2021, but as Hahn said before the game, Jimenez and Robert are both making progress, and if the second base void can be stabilized, the White Sox can hit the postseason not just with an elite record, but with the best version of its roster of the entire season.

“This is a team that’s not only been resilient, but fun to watch,” White Sox GM Rick Hahn said before the game. “While the games have been intense in a playoff-like intensity, that’s why we do this.

Stopgap after stopgap, nearly every replacement Hahn has provided and La Russa has plugged in has helped. The result so far is the best record in the American League.

In a season that has provided South Siders plenty of reason for trepidation, that’s pretty exciting. That fever was on display as the White Sox overcame the Rays at the end, with everyone racing out of the dugout to mob Grandal on the field, and 20,098 fans screaming their lungs out under a clear late-spring sky, one more obstacle in a season full of them out of the way.

And why wouldn’t they yell? Numerous teams have dealt with injuries and COVID-19 uncertainty and all sorts of residual 2020 strangeness. But in the AL, after Wednesday, only one can say that it has cleared every obstacle on the way to the league’s best record. Right now, that’s the White Sox.

“This one here is going to be [a] keeper,” La Russa said. “Because of the contributions of the guys who had to play. That’s special stuff, up and down the lineup.”