The difference between the Astros and White Sox, besides a million runs, is attitude.
The Astros don’t care whom they’re playing or where they’re playing. They don’t care who’s pitching against them or what the pitcher is throwing. They don’t care what you’re saying about their past sins or how colorfully you’re saying it.
They don’t give a whit. They just hit.
The Sox could use some of that.
Now, please don’t misunderstand. This is not a plea for the Sox to start cheating to win a World Series, the way Houston did in 2017. No one needs to see or hear Yoan Moncada banging a garbage can in the dugout to tip off Sox hitters about what pitch is coming next.
This is a recognition that the Sox are missing something besides a better right fielder or a more productive second baseman or the reliever who used to be Craig Kimbrel.
They’re lacking steel-reinforced confidence and a complete disregard for opponents’ emotional well-being. The Sox don’t kill for fun. The Astros do, with sadistic hitting. That’s how you separate these teams. That and a 3-1 American League Division Series triumph for Houston.
You’d be right to ask how one could extrapolate all that from four postseason games. The Sox won 93 games and the AL Central title. Clearly, they did something right during the regular season.
Baseball is weird. We all get that. Trying to understand why one team is hitting and one isn’t is like trying to grab a handful of smoke. All I know is that none of the following Sox had extra-base hits in the series, which is to say, when it mattered: Jose Abreu, Tim Anderson, Eloy Jimenez, Luis Robert and Moncada. You’re not going to win like that. I know, I know: It’s a small sample size. Guess what? That’s what the playoffs are.
Add small sample sizes to the things the Astros don’t care about.
The most fire the Sox showed was when manager Tony La Russa, angry that the Astros had plunked Abreu in Game 4, accused Houston of doing it intentionally. Never mind that it made no sense for the Astros to do such a thing in the eighth inning of a game they were leading 7-1. La Russa had finally found a hair in his soup. He was off to the rages.
I don’t measure a team’s attitude by how many emotional outbursts it has. But something was missing for the Sox. The Astros seemed to take special pleasure in two-strike hits. The Sox couldn’t seem to buy a hit with men on. Both of those situations come with extra pressure. One team reacted well. The other didn’t.
The Sox showed a lot of heart by coming back from a 5-1 deficit to beat the Astros at home in Game 3, but it’s a lot easier to do that when there are 40,000 of your fans, most dressed in team black, cheering you on. Where was that resolve in Game 4 when Houston was stockpiling runs as if a global shortage was forecast? Or in Games 1 and 2 on the road?
A team that knows it’s good doesn’t care if it’s playing in hostile territory. Maybe all the abuse the Astros have taken from fans since the sign-stealing scandal has hardened them. Nothing about a playoff game in Guaranteed Rate Field concerned them.
The Sox aren’t there yet.
How do they get there?
The best-case scenario for the Sox is that what we saw, or didn’t see, in the ALDS was a result of youth and inexperience. Maybe more veteran leadership is what’s needed here. Simplistic? Not very analytical? All I know is that there’s something about Astros star Jose Altuve that’s contagious, and it goes beyond his ability to hit a baseball.
How does Sox general manager Rick Hahn add something as hard to find as ruthlessness? The Sox clearly have gobs of talent, but is there a store that specializes in leadership? And what’s it going to take to buy some?
Or is he going to wait for the young, extremely talented players on his team to get “it.’’ Risky business.
After an 11-year absence from the playoffs, the Sox have played in the postseason in consecutive years. Last season was looked upon as a learning experience, a good one. This one, not so much. This one lacked the strides many of us predicted for them.
The next step might be the hardest one. Your move, Mr. Hahn.