White Sox Fight for Life Against Twins, Guardians in AL Central

ANAHEIM, Calif. — Andrew Vaughn, the Chicago White Sox outfielder, grew up in Santa Rosa, the Northern California town best known for its wineries and as the home of cartoonist Charles M. Schulz. Vaughn said his father knew Schulz, the creator of the “Peanuts” comic strip, a little and spent a lot of time at Snoopy’s Home Ice, an ice rink in town.

As for himself, Vaughn said, he bypassed the rink because he did not trust the blades.

“I didn’t want to lose my fingers,” Vaughn said.

As the White Sox continue slipping and sliding through a disappointing summer, what has become readily apparent is that a team ravaged by injuries is leaning harder than ever on the good hands and unexpected production of guys like Vaughn. And the team’s best chance to regain its grip on the American League Central begins on Monday, when the White Sox play the first of 19 consecutive games against division rivals Minnesota, Detroit and Cleveland.

Fifteen of those games are against the two teams ahead of them in the standings, the Twins and the Guardians, in a stretch that seems likely to set the tone for the rest of the White Sox season.

“One-hundred percent,” said Vaughn, who was second on the team in batting average (.300) and doubles (14) through Saturday and was ranked third in on-base plus slugging percentage (.810). “We’ve got to go play our game, take advantage of opportunities and play well.”

“I’m excited,” manager Tony La Russa said. “We’ve got our pitching lined up.”

The pitching is no small part of the equation. Starter Lance Lynn injured his right knee in spring training and didn’t make his first start until June 13. La Russa noted that having Lynn, Lucas Giolito, Michael Kopech, Dylan Cease and Johnny Cueto finally up and running together “is the most positive.” thing we’ve got going.”

Closer Liam Hendriks, who was 16 for 19 in save opportunities before straining the flexor tendon in his forearm on June 10, is close to returning.

La Russa is loath to discuss the squad’s plethora of injuries, noting that such problems are not unique to his team following a truncated spring training. But with the White Sox, it’s not just the number of injuries, it’s who has been injured. The Sox currently rank fourth in the majors in most money spent on injured list players ($22,578,203), according to Spotrac.

Much of the team’s drop-off can be explained by those absences.

Last season, Lynn ranked first in the AL in ERA (2.69) and opponents’ OPS (.605) and second in opponents’ batting average (.209) among pitchers who threw more than 150 innings. He’s thrown only 22 innings this season.

Third baseman Yoan Moncada was third in the AL with a .375 on-base percentage last season and his 33 doubles led the White Sox. He started the season on the IL with an oblique strain, returned on May 9, hurt his quad, then went back on the IL with a strained hamstring. He’s played in only 33 games this year and is hitting .189 with a .238 on-base percentage.

Activated last Tuesday in Anaheim, Moncada, 27, showed flashes of his old self, going 2 for 5 with a double and two RBI. Then he fouled a ball off his right foot during Wednesday’s game, went for X-rays and finished the night with his foot wrapped in ice.

Even with Moncada’s return, the White Sox currently have nine players on the IL, including outfielders Eloy Jiménez and Adam Engel, catcher Yasmani Grandal, reliever Aaron Bummer and infielder Danny Mendick.

That’s why Vaughn, Chicago’s first-round pick (third overall) in the 2019 draft, has been so valuable. Through Friday, he was ranked eighth in the AL with a .357 batting average with runners in scoring position. He had also been the game’s best road hitter, with a .369 batting average away from Chicago.

“Most days, if not all days, he’s as good as any hitter we have on the team,” La Russa said. “He is smart, he adjusts, he takes instruction well. He’s a hungry hitter.”

He’s also one of the few hitters satiating the appetites of White Sox fans who expected far more from this team. Prohibitive favorites to win a second consecutive AL Central title entering the season, the White Sox were given a 59.2 percent chance to win the division by Fangraphs on opening day, with Minnesota at 23.3 percent and Cleveland at 7.5 percent. Now, those odds have flipped to 40.6 percent for the Twins, 32.6 percent for the White Sox and 26.7 percent for the Guardians.

The shifting landscape emphasizes the importance of what’s next.

“We know what’s in front of us,” said Josh Harrison, the versatile, 12-year veteran who signed a free agent deal with the Sox in March. “Ultimately, you’ve got to take care of your in-division opponents.”

The injuries and losses have conspired to add not only frustration to the Sox season, but dashes of controversy and confusion as well.

In a surprising move for a team with an old-school manager like La Russa, the short-handed White Sox have advised Tim Anderson, Luis Robert, José Abreu and others not to run hard on plays that appear to be routine outs. It is based on advice from the team’s training staff, who are trying to preserve the players’ legs.

It is unconventional at the very least, and an especially odd decision to publicize. But La Russa wants the fans to understand that his guys are giving it their all, even in moments when it may not appear that way.

“If you know you’re going to be out, if you hit the ball hard to second base, you know you’re playing at the professional level and guys know how to catch and throw the ball,” Anderson said. “Skip and the training staff know what’s best for the players. We just follow their lead.”

La Russa, 77, has been under fire personally in some quarters since last month when he ordered a two-strike, intentional walk to Trea Turner during a game against the Dodgers. Trailing 7-5 in the sixth inning, the Sox watched as the left-handed Max Muncy followed the intentional walk by smashing a three-run homer in a game Los Angeles eventually won, 11-9. The strategy was more defensible than it seemed: Lifetime, Turner was hitting .254 in 1-2 counts against left-handed pitchers, and this season he was hitting .333 in 1-2 counts. Muncy was hitting .159 at the time.

Regardless, periodic chants of “Fire Tony!” have been heard at Guaranteed Rate Field ever since. La Russa says he likes the fans’ passion and would rather have that than apathy. White Sox players shrug it off.

“That’s why you get yourself a good set of ear plugs and don’t pay attention to it, man,” Anderson said of the excess noise that has accompanied the team’s on-field frustrations this year, from the La Russa negativity to the episode. involving Josh Donaldson of the Yankees, who was suspended for disrespectful comments toward Anderson.

Yes, several White Sox players said, they understand the growing frustration. But they also expect to improve as key players return to active duty and they say it is too early to obsess over the standings.

“The thing is, we keep getting asked that question,” Kopech said. “How does it feel?” Nobody likes to lose. We’re not happy. We’re not winning, but nobody’s panicking. We know we can turn it around tomorrow.”

With 15 games against Minnesota and Cleveland on deck over the next three weeks, tomorrow is here. For perspective, Lynn broke in under La Russa in St. Louis in 2011 and says he’s seen both the manager and his team endure worse.

“It’s part of this culture,” Lynn said. Everyone expects everything to be perfect all the time, and when it’s not perfect, they’ve got to have someone to blame. That’s part of the gig. He’s doing all he can to put us in the best position to win. Some days, it doesn’t work out.”

Lynn points back to that 2011 season, when the Cardinals were basically left for dead before taking advantage of Atlanta’s epic collapse, erasing a 10.5-game deficit and stealing the National League wild card on the last day of the season. Then they went on to win La Russa’s second World Series in St. Louis.

“I’ve seen a lot of weird things in this game over the course of my career, and this isn’t any different,” Lynn said. “You’ve just got to weather the storm.”

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