Playing the White Sox “if you had told me” game can last longer than a game of Monopoly.
It might start with, “if you told me a year ago Tony La Russa would be the manager” and just keep going.
And continue with “Eloy Jimenez and Luis Robert would be out for most or all of the season” and “Carlos Rodon would be the best left-hander in baseball his first five starts.”
No one foresaw a lot of things we’re seeing from the 2021 Sox, a team that was third in the majors in homers in 2020 and is 28th this season but still leading the American League Central and the majors in run differential (+53).
Lots of unforeseen things have unfolded, and through them all, La Russa managed to have the Sox enjoying an off day Monday in first place. There are 130 games left, but the 32 played offer a template of what they might look like from here on out.
It wasn’t what we thought they’d look like, not when Leury Garcia is playing center field in a 9-3 victory to complete a series sweep in Kansas City, flanked by Andrew Vaughn and Danny Mendick in the corners. It wasn’t what general manager Rick Hahn had in mind in the first year he expected to field a World Series contender, but that’s what injuries do.
With Rodon showing the way, the Sox have the best starting rotation in baseball right now, with Michael Kopech building up his endurance to start when needed. The way the rotation is going, Kopech (1.61 ERA in nine appearances including two starts) will have to settle for spot starts — that’s how good it is. The bullpen, expected by many to be the Sox’ greatest strength, still is taking shape with roles being sorted out.
But the offense as currently modeled is something no one saw coming. Buoyed by Yermin Mercedes’ Rookie of the Month explosion, a significant improvement in team walks taken and strikeouts given and an on-base percentage ranking second in the majors, the Sox are second in baseball with 5.12 runs per game, even though their hard-contact rate ranks 19th.
It’s a hit-and-miss, up-and-down offense, demonstrated by run totals in the last 14 games of 9, 2, 8, 2, 3, 11, 3, 7, 0, 9, 0, 3, 9, 9.
Mendick, a utility infielder by trade, had the only Sox homer of the three-game sweep. But the Sox scored 21 runs.
“If we do what we did tonight, we’re going to score a lot of runs,” La Russa said Saturday. “The biggest mistake now is always trying to hit home runs and not just getting the ball to the barrel. If we start doing that we’ll go backward.”
La Russa said the homers will come when the weather warms up.
“As long as we make great contact, our offense is in great shape,” he said.
It wouldn’t hurt if Vaughn, who is finding some groove with a .319 average and five doubles in his last 14 games, would show more pop. He hasn’t homered after hitting six in a small sample size of 55 minor-league games, none above Class A.
And it wouldn’t hurt if catcher Yasmani Grandal, who has walked 27 times, would show more power. Grandal’s 109 home runs since 2016 rank second among all catchers, but they’re slow to come this season — he has two.
While waiting for the long ball, the Sox will rely on putting the ball in play, getting on base and hitting well with two strikes. Nick Madrigal (.333), Mendick (.316) and Mercedes (.271) rank first, fourth and ninth, respectively, in average with two strikes.
La Russa knows he can’t sit back and wait for the three-run homer. The Sox will have to manufacture runs.
“Absolutely, I think you have to,” he said after Robert went down. “You just play with what you’ve got.
“Small ball is really important in close games against really good pitching. It’s also — if the lineup fits small ball, you play small ball.”
White Sox offense in majors through Sunday:
Runs 4th, 164
Hits 7th, 272
Home runs 28th, 27
Strikeouts 22nd, 282
Walks 9th, 123
On-base percentage 2nd, .339
Average 4th, .255
Slugging 15th, .391
OPS 8th, .729
TWINS AT SOX
Tuesday: Kenta Maeda (2-2, 5.02 ERA) vs. Dylan Cease (2-0, 2.37), 7:10 p.m., NBCSCH+, 1000-AM.
Wednesday: J.A. Happ (2-0, 1.91) vs. Dallas Keuchel (1-1, 3.79), 7:10 p.m., NBCSCH,
Thursday: Michael Pineda (2-1, 2.43) vs. Carlos Rodon (5-0, 0.58), 1:10 p.m., NBCSCH,