Guardians sweep White Sox

White Sox (76-74) lose 4-2, fall seven games behind AL Central leaders with 12 games to play.

Terry Francona and Steven Kwan celebrate after sweeping the White Sox.

Guardians manager Terry Francona, left, and left fielder Steven Kwan celebrate the team’s win against the White Sox Thursday.

David Banks/AP

The White Sox played the Guardians on Thursday in a game that didn’t matter.

You could feel it in the clubhouse, on the field and in the crisp autumn air that reintroduced itself to Guaranteed Rate Field.

While not yet mathematically eliminated from the postseason, the Sox were essentially dumped from contention when they lost the first game of the series 10-7 in 11 innings Tuesday. The body bags of a disastrous season were zipped shut Wednesday in a lackluster 8-2 loss.

For some fans, there was a sense of relief, like losing an aging loved one who had suffered too long. In this case, fans were put out of their misery, having watched what many say is the most disappointing Sox season in memory.

World Series expectations, trumpeted by the Sox’ front office itself, are at the root of it. The owner hired a manager who was supposed to bring a rebuilt franchise to baseball’s upper tier, but the manager did nothing to elevate the assembled talent.

There were injuries, as acting manager Miguel Cairo lamented Thursday. A plethora of them. But every team has injuries, and even when healthy, the 2022 Sox didn’t play well enough to win perhaps the weakest division in baseball. They were lucky to be in contention as long as they were and openly admitted it.

As right-hander Lance Lynn succinctly put it Wednesday, “Nothing surprises me, especially when you play like [crap] all year.”

The Sox left the good playing to the youngest team in the major leagues, the Guardians, who showed them up with 11 wins in the teams’ first 18 games, out-hustling and outperforming them for six months.

So now what?

It’s hard to imagine any scenario where Tony La Russa returns in 2023 — for the good of the players, the franchise or the manager himself at age 78 and with heart issues. Moving to an advisory role upstairs in some capacity for the final year of his contract seems to make sense. Whether general manager Rick Hahn returns would be a more serious debate if not for the loyalty of chairman Jerry Reinsdorf — loyalty that also prompted him to rehire La Russa two years ago.

Look no further than Kansas City, where the Royals, who won back-to-back American League titles and then a World Series in 2015, dismissed general manager Dayton Moore on Wednesday. Hahn and executive vice president Ken Williams should be held to equally high standards for Sox fans who waited patiently through a rebuild and have enjoyed all of three victories in playoff games since the 2005 World Series title.

Williams, as GM, and Hahn, as assistant GM, remain in charge, watching Reinsdorf’s store. Although they added shortstop Elvis Andrus on Aug. 19, the lone addition of lefty reliever Jake Diekman at the trade deadline wasn’t enough to make a difference, especially for a roster that scoffed at the notion that defense matters and often left its baseball smarts on the bus. Perhaps Reinsdorf, already shelling out for his highest payroll ever, reached his limit.

Discussions already have begun internally about what to do next. When your payroll is seventh in baseball and the 27th team in payroll beats you going away, when La Russa is hired and it all fails, change is inevitable.

Players, management, ownership — they’re all responsible.

Meanwhile, Cairo managed again in La Russa’s place Thursday. He now has a 13-9 record after a 4-2 Sox loss. Perhaps he’s a candidate to be a full-time manager. It’s one of many topics of conversation upstairs at 35th and Shields.

“Some other teams after the All-Star break, they got better, they made some trades,” Cairo said before the game. “We made the playoffs last year — we came up short against Houston. And this year, all the injuries that we’ve been having, it’s been tough.”

His focus then shifted to a game that didn’t mean much, if anything.

“You’re a professional baseball player, playing in the big leagues, you’ve got to be ready to come and work and play hard,” he said. “This is not over.”

It sure doesn’t feel that way.

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