BALTIMORE — Tony La Russa hit the All-Star break feeling fine — energized, in fact, the 76-year-old White Sox manager said.
Before the Sox defeated the Orioles 7-5 on Adam Engel’s three-run homer in the 10th inning Sunday to complete a three-game sweep and a 6-3 road trip to post one of their best pre-break records in franchise history, La Russa was asked how he was feeling. When you’re old enough to have managed against Earl Weaver, it’s a pertinent question.
“All the questions that were asked were fair,” La Russa said, noting the noise and pushback that surrounded his hiring in October for a second go-around with the Sox after being away from managing since 2011.
There were moments that set off alarms, and deservedly so, La Russa said, but none lately. A self-described “fan” of baseball, La Russa will watch the All-Star Game on TV, but most importantly he’ll self-evaluate and analyze a 54-35 team that has overcome myriad injuries to build an eight-game lead in the American League Central with the best record in the AL.
“If there is one message we have to abide by as a staff and team, it’s that we need to play better,” he said. “We need to improve from here to the end.”
Before scattering for home, short vacation destinations or the All-Star Game, the Sox pinned a tough loss on the lowly Orioles (28-61) behind two homers by rookie Andrew Vaughn — a 447-foot solo shot to left and a three-run opposite-field poke to right — and Engel’s blast after pinch hitter Trey Mancini forced extra innings with a two-out homer in the ninth against closer Liam Hendriks.
After Jose Ruiz gave up a run in the 10th, Matt Foster got the last two outs for his first career save, the game ending on DJ Stewart’s warning track fly to Engel in center.
“Tony is very much about winning,” Engel said. “The way he talks, manages, everything he does has just that feel of ‘I want to win tonight, and I want to win at all costs.’ That’s a huge part of our team. We started building that culture, and now that he’s part of it, his personality suits us incredibly well.”
Dylan Cease (8-4, 4.11 ERA) threw five innings of two-run ball, striking out six and not allowing a hit after Austin Hays’ two-run homer in the first. He was at 85 pitches with the 3-4-5 hitters coming up when La Russa went to Michael Kopech, who struck out the side in the sixth.
“I didn’t think it was a smart time to push him,” La Russa said. “I felt the sixth would be a tough inning. You trust your gut.”
Cease had kept it close, and Vaughn injected a couple of jolts as the Sox completed a 7-0 sweep of the Orioles, the first time a Sox team swept a season series of at least seven games. On the day before the break against a last-place team, the Sox didn’t let up.
“I’ve never thought we’ve had a flat day, which is an amazing compliment to our team,” La Russa said.
The Sox have their most first-half wins since 2008 and their best winning percentage at the break since they were 57-31 in 2006.
“You have to execute and be productive,” La Russa said. “I’m not saying we’ve played perfect, but more often than not we’ve executed and been productive. But we need to improve. We had the hiccups in New York and Houston [getting swept]. Other than that ...”
For the most part, all good, especially considering the injuries. Eloy Jimenez will be back fairly soon, and Luis Robert might -follow. That will keep a manager’s juices flowing. Not that La Russa needs reasons.
“If you can be this close to the action, you don’t get tired,” he said. “I’m fired up. Chance to win. It’s the most fun you can have.
“Every manager dreams of walking into a club that’s ready to win. Rarely does it -happen. These guys inspire me.”