HomeSportsA season on the line

A season on the line

ANAHEIM, Calif. — Chicago White Sox outfielder Andrew Vaughn grew up in Santa Rosa, the Northern California city best known for his wineries and as the home of cartoonist Charles M. Schulz. Vaughn said his father knew Schulz, the creator of the “Peanuts” comic strip, a bit and spent a lot of time at Snoopy’s Home Ice, an ice rink in town.

As for him, Vaughn said, he missed the clue because he didn’t trust the blades.

“I didn’t want to lose my fingers,” Vaughn said.

As the White Sox continue to slip and slide through a disappointing summer, what has become apparent is that an injury-ravaged team leans more than ever on the good hands and unexpected production of guys like Vaughn. And the team’s best chance to regain control of the AL Central begins Monday, when the White Sox play the first of 19 straight games against division rivals Minnesota, Detroit and Cleveland.

Fifteen of those games are against the two teams that precede them in the standings, the Twins and the Guardians, in a stretch that appears to set the tone for the rest of the White Sox season.

“One hundred percent,” said Vaughn, who was second on the team in batting average (.300) and doubles (14) through Saturday and third in on-base plus slugging percentage (.810). “We have to 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 pitch is no small part of the equation. Starting pitcher Lance Lynn injured his right knee in spring training and didn’t make his first start until June 13. La Russa noted that having Lynn, Lucas Giolito, Michael Kopech, Dylan Cease and Johnny Cueto finally up and running together “is the most positive thing we have going on.

Closer Liam Hendriks, who was 16-for-19 in save opportunities before injuring his flexor tendon in his forearm June 10, is close to a return.

La Russa is reluctant to talk about the team’s plethora of injuries, noting that such issues aren’t unique to his team after a truncated spring training. But with the White Sox, it’s not just the number of injuries, it’s who has been injured. The Sox currently rank fourth in the majors in most of the money spent on players on the disabled list ($22,578,203), according to Spotrac.

Much of the team’s decline is explained by these absences.

Last season, Lynn ranked first in the American League in ERA (2.69) and opponents’ OPS (.605) and second in opponents’ batting average (.209) among pitchers who pitched more than 150 innings. . He has pitched just 22 innings this season.

Third baseman Yoan Moncada was third in the American League with a .375 on-base percentage last season and his 33 doubles led the White Sox. He started the IL season with an oblique strain, returned May 9, hurt his quad, then returned to the IL with a hamstring strain. He has played in just 33 games this year and is hitting .189 with a .238 on-base percentage.

Activated last Tuesday at Anaheim, the 27-year-old Moncada showed glimpses of his old self, going 2-for-5 with a double and two RBIs. He then fouled his right foot during Wednesday’s game, underwent X-rays and ended the night with his foot encased in ice.

Even with Moncada’s return, the White Sox currently have nine players on the injured list, including outfielders Eloy Jimenez and Adam Engel, catcher Yasmani Grandal, reliever Aaron Bummer and infielder Danny Mendick.

That’s why Vaughn, Chicago’s first-round pick (third overall) in the 2019 draft, has been so valuable. As of Friday, he ranked eighth in the American League with a .357 batting average with runners in scoring position. He had also been the game’s best road hitter, batting .369 away from Chicago.

“Most days, if not every day, he’s as good as any hitter we have on the team,” La Russa said. “He is smart, he adapts, he takes instructions well. He is a hungry hitter.”

He’s also one of the few hitters to whet the appetite of White Sox fans who expected much more from this team. Prohibitive favorites to win a second straight AL Central title entering the season, the White Sox had a 59.2 percent chance of winning. win the division by Fangraphs on opening day, with Minnesota at 23.3 percent and Cleveland at 7.5 percent. Now, those odds have changed to 40.6 percent for the Twins, 32.6 percent for the White Sox and 26.7 percent for the Guardians.

The changing landscape emphasizes the importance of what follows.

“We know what’s ahead of us,” said Josh Harrison, the versatile 12-year veteran who signed a free agent deal with the Red Sox in March. “Ultimately, you have to take care of your opponents in the division.”

Injuries and losses have conspired to add not only frustration to the Sox season, but also a sprinkling of controversy and confusion.

In a surprising move for a team with an old-school manager like La Russa, the White Sox have advised Tim Anderson, Luis Robert, Jose Abreu and others not to rush into plays that appear to be routine outs. It is based on the advice of the team’s coaching staff, which tries to preserve the players’ legs.

It’s unconventional to say the least, and an especially odd decision to advertise. But La Russa wants the fans to understand that his guys are giving it their all, even when he doesn’t seem like it.

“If you know you’re going to be out, if you hit the ball hard to second base, you know you’re playing at a professional level and guys know how to catch and throw the ball,” Anderson said. “Skip and the coaching staff know what’s best for the players. We just follow their lead.”

La Russa, 77, has personally been under fire in some quarters since last month when he ordered an intentional two-strike walk on Trea Turner during a game against the Dodgers. Trailing 7-5 in the sixth inning, the Red Sox watched as left-hander Max Muncy followed up the intentional walk by hitting a three-run homer in a game that Los Angeles ultimately won, 11-9. The strategy was more defensible than it seemed: Turner was hitting .254 in his career at 1-2 against left-handed pitchers, and this season he was hitting .333 at 1-2. Muncy was hitting .159 at the time.

Regardless, the periodic chants of “Fire Tony!” they have been heard at Guaranteed Rate Field ever since. La Russa says that she likes the passion of the fans and that she would rather have that than apathy. The White Sox players shrug.

“That’s why you buy yourself a nice set of earplugs and pay no attention to it, man,” Anderson said of the excessive noise that has accompanied the team’s frustrations on the field this year, since La Russa’s negativity. until the episode. involving the Yankees’ Josh Donaldson, who was suspended for disrespectful comments toward Anderson.

Yes, several White Sox players said, they understand the growing frustration. But they also hope to improve as key players return to active duty and say it’s too early to obsess over ranking.

“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. For perspective, Lynn broke up with La Russa in St. Louis in 2011 and says she’s seen worse for both the manager and his team.

“It’s part of this culture,” Lynn said. “Everyone expects everything to be perfect all the time, and when it’s not perfect, they have someone to blame. That’s part of the concert. He’s doing everything he can to put us in the best position to win. Some days, it doesn’t work.”

Lynn remembers that 2011 season, when the Cardinals were basically left for dead before capitalizing on Atlanta’s epic collapse, erasing a 10.5-game deficit and stealing the NL wild card on the final day of the season. They then went on to win La Russa’s second World Series in St. Louis.

“I’ve seen a lot of weird stuff in this game throughout my career, and this is no different,” Lynn said. “You just have to weather the storm.”

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