White Sox closer Liam Hendriks said it doesn’t matter whom you beat, it’s whether you beat them at the right time.
And that’s in October.
“It doesn’t matter who we are playing,” Hendriks said before the Sox, in their first game coming out of the All-Star break and enjoying a comfy eight-game lead in the American League Central, lost 7-1 to the AL West-leading Astros on Friday at Guaranteed Rate Field. “The biggest thing is getting as many wins and separating ourselves in the division. You just want to make sure you don’t lose the momentum you gained.
“We finished the first half strong, and we want to make sure we continue on that.”
The Sox started strong against the Astros before the biggest home crowd of the season, 34,516, but they weren’t strong for long. Right-hander Dylan Cease was dazzling through the first eight batters, striking out five in a row en route to a 10-strikeout night. And Tim Anderson and Yoan Moncada hit righty Lance McCullers’ first two pitches for a triple and double, spotting Cease a 1-0 lead.
But McCullers (7-2, 2.80 ERA) didn’t allow a hit after that and struck out 10 in seven innings. And Cease stopped his eight-men-out streak by walking No. 9 hitter Martin Maldonado, the free pass starting a two-run rally that might have been avoided had Leury Garcia covered second on Jose Altuve’s slow roller to Anderson at shortstop. After Michael Brantley got grazed by a pitch to load the bases, Yuli Gurriel drove in two runs with a single.
“I felt like I pretty much gave them the first two runs,” Cease said.
“A tough walk in front of the top of the lineup, and from my perspective, I didn’t see a play that could have been made [in the middle of the infield],” manager Tony La Russa said. “Just well-placed.”
In any event, it all added up to a messy pair of runs. Brantley’s homer in the fifth increased the Astros’ lead to 3-1, and left-hander Aaron Bummer, fresh off the injured list, allowed four runs in the seventh to make it 7-1.
The Sox (54-36) talked about having another go at the Astros (56-36) after they were swept in a four-game series in Houston (June 17-20).
But it was more of the same.
“They exposed us a little bit,” Anderson said before the game. “Sometimes it’s good to be exposed. You don’t know how worse you can be; you try to be better. We have a better game plan. We’ll play hard and see what happens.
“Everybody’s human. They strap it on like we strap it on. There is nothing special about any team that comes in to play us.”
The Astros are 5-0 against the Sox and have outscored them 34-9, however.
“We have two more games, and you seize the series against them,” La Russa said.
Before the game, he noted series wins for the Sox against the Rays and Blue Jays.
“I just think you understand how good Houston is,” La Russa said. “But I know how good we are. So you look forward to the competition.”
And also look forward to getting Eloy Jimenez and Luis Robert back from injuries and perhaps upgrades at second base, the bullpen and maybe at catcher before the July 30 trade deadline.
The good thing for the Sox is they’re sitting on a big lead, and if it has been piled up against weaker competition, so be it. The Sox are 21-23 against teams at or above .500 and 33-13 against teams below .500.
“As long as we get hot toward the end of the season,” Hendriks said. “That’s all that matters.”
“We need to treat these like playoff games,” Cease (7-5, 4.15 ERA) said, “but it’s behind us now. We have a talented roster, and we have great pitching. There’s no reason to lose any self-belief.”