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Games on: Front end of White Sox schedule loaded with division foes

SCOTTSDALE, Ariz. — The meaningless Cactus League games are over. For what it’s worth, the White Sox finished with an 11-17-3 record no one will remember a month from now.

The victories and losses that do matter begin in earnest Monday, when the Sox open the season on the road against the defending American League champion Kansas City Royals. It will be the first of 18 consecutive games against AL Central teams for the Sox.

‘‘We’re not putting a lot of emphasis on these games and the results of these games,’’ Sox left-hander Chris Sale said of the 31 exhibitions played in the Phoenix area. ‘‘We have guys who can show up and play when the lights are on. That’s what matters.’’

The lights might get bright on a division some consider to be among the best in baseball. General manager Rick Hahn said 86 or 87 victories might capture the title because everyone will be beating up on each other all summer long.

Whatever the number, it figures to be a tight race, which would make games in April equally important to games in September. They all count the same.

‘‘Yeah, it’s really important,’’ said Sox right-hander Jeff Samardzija, who is taking the ball in the injured Sale’s place Monday. ‘‘It’s always important to get off to a fast start, division or no division. Every game means so much, and you see how it comes down to the wild card in the last game of the year. You can’t win the division in the first month, but you can definitely lose it, so you want to come out and be competitive.’’

Especially with the schedule heavily tilted within the division out of the chute. Thirty-two of the Sox’ first 44 games are against AL Central teams, against whom they were 33-43 last season. Starting Monday, it will be time for the Sox to show the division they aren’t the same team.

‘‘Those teams you’re going to be playing . . . you really want to establish yourself early in the year and put yourself in a situation to make a run in the summer,’’ Samardzija said. ‘‘If your record isn’t where you want to be in July, it’s tough to make up that ground.’’

‘‘Every win is going to matter,’’ Hahn said, ‘‘and we start out with [32 of our first 44] games against our division, so it’s been a focus of ours to get off to a good start because of that.’’

The Sox shouldn’t be a unit that will need a wakeup call when the lights go on. Players can’t wait to get going, and executive vice president Ken Williams said he never has seen a team play as hard in spring training as this one has.

The danger in emphasizing a fast start is what happens if the Sox go 7-11 in their first 18 games? Bad stretches are inevitable, sometimes they come early and the Sox will be without a key piece of their bullpen (Jake Petricka) to start the season. And Sale will miss that first start.

You almost can hear the ‘‘fire the manager’’ talk-show calls already.

‘‘We’re just going to try and compete, jell as a team early and play good baseball,’’ said center fielder Adam Eaton, who’s as gung-ho as they come. ‘‘Every game is important. Divisional games are important, but I don’t put heightened importance on it right away. It’s not a make-or-breaker in April. If we’re winning in June, July and August, we’ll be all right.’’

 

Email: dvanschouwen@suntimes.com

Twitter: @CST_soxvan