White Sox’s struggles continue even as schedule softens: ‘Something missing’

Tony La Russa cautioned against the fallacy of underestimating the vastly improved Baltimore Orioles of 2022 or assuming anything like a simple repeat of last year, when the White Sox swept the seven-game season streak and outplayed the AL East bottom feeders by 29 runs .

“They’ve been very competitive and will be a handful this weekend,” he said.

But if there’s any reason for optimism about the White Sox’s disappointing 33-36 start, it’s because they’re stuck with clearly the toughest part of their schedule, complete with string wins against some AL East contenders. They have the weakest remaining schedule in the American League. In the last three months, they’ll be playing a lot more teams like the Orioles, non-competitors who lack the premium talent to be more.

Consistently frequent injuries are part of the equation, but instead of outplaying opponents, the Sox dropped the first two games, with the Orioles’ level of execution creating all the edges. On Thursday night, Dean Kremer and the Baltimore bullpen completed only the second shutout the White Sox suffered all season with a 4-0 loss. It was highlighted by superlative outfield defense as the Orioles sped down three separate runs on the warning lane and a few other potential gappers, and Baltimore right fielder Austin Hays directed both a dive catch at the foul line on Jake Burger and an outfield assist on throw Gavin Sheets at home by several steps — the MLB-leading 13th on the plate for the Sox. For a Sox team that regularly trades defensive reach in the outfield corners to try to add more punch to its lineup, this was a stark contrast.

Friday night offered more contrast as the Orioles won 4-1. Michael Kopech is the pitching talent the White Sox spent half a decade preparing to rise to the top of their rotation and is the unit’s ERA leader at 2.59. Against him, the Orioles offered a game of bullpen, led by reliever Austin Voth, who came into the night with an 8.31 ERA and came out with three innings of a one-run ball. Every helper who followed him fared even better, as the RBI double that handed Voth Burger was the only Sox hit Friday night.

“Something was obviously missing,” said Burger, defending the energy and amount of encouraging communication in the dugout. “Everyone says something. Tim (Anderson), Joe McEwing, the list goes on and on. Of course we’re all professionals and know what to do, but it’s always good to have these guys cheer you up. It just didn’t work that way.”

“We’re out of base runners after the fifth inning, aren’t we?” said La Russa, whose offense had 19 straight outs to end the game. “We’re better than that. We need to find out why that’s true. I have some ideas but I’m not allowed to share them. That is not acceptable.”

The Orioles didn’t have an offensive blast against Kopech — they managed just three hits in his six innings. But they capitalized on a weakness, stealing five bases in as many attempts in the first four innings and turning any hint of offensive progress into a scoring opportunity. The Sox offense, on the other hand, has led the MLB in stolen bases success rate all season, but over the past week, much of its lineup — and all of its ongoing threats — have managed efforts on the basepaths to further aggravate persistent leg injuries avoid . It’s an unfair comparison, but the visual contrast is noticeable to home audiences and not a source of satisfaction.

“It was a tough night on both sides of the ball, but we fight hard every night,” said Kopech, who lamented his lack of off-speed command but got off to a good start. “I can be faster on the plate. We talked about that all season. They took advantage of that a little tonight. I know the guys that were there were runners so we tried some things to make them off guard while they were running and they weren’t going our way so we just need to get better at that, keep them in check to keep.

Cedric Mullins blasted his way with the first pitch of the game (one of the Orioles’ three hits ahead of Kopech), stole second place, moved up to third with a groundout, and hit on a wild pitch. In the second, Kopech hit shortstop Jorge Mateo in the back with a 99 mph fastball with two outs on a 1-2 count. The Orioles dugout was immediately excited, the benches cleared, and an agitated Kopech was calmed by Lance Lynn and pitching coach Ethan Katz. But if it was an exciting moment, it was for the Orioles when Mateo defiantly stole second place and scored with a two-out singles. It was the only extra run the Orioles would need. Kopech’s last run of the night in six innings came on a two-out beam with a third-place runner. It was another small mistake, not representative of the level of talent, but ultimately insurmountable.

“I told him afterward that I thought I would pull up and stretch again, but I started pulling up and then tried to switch to stretching,” Kopech said. “That was the right call. I wasn’t asked about it beforehand. When a runner is in third place they usually ask which one I’m going to do and they haven’t asked, but still I have to include that and do the right thing there. I just screwed it up.”

Kopech will no doubt condemn himself for the mistake as he does for all of his mistakes, and a single wasted run will become too focused on a night when the Sox offense highlighted every deficiency on the fringes. But that was the hallmark of this team’s losses. An offense that should hit the ball enough to cover other deficiencies hasn’t done so consistently enough, even in a month of June that revived ahead of this weekend. And when the Sox power pitching team isn’t knocking everyone out, it’s spotlighting a defense with the lowest fielding percentage and defensive effectiveness (by baseball reference) in the American League.

Before the game, La Russa defended third-base coach McEwing’s decision to send runners home given the number of outs on the plate the Sox fell victim to. If nothing else, McEwing’s review would be better viewed as team philosophy, as La Russa gave his approval of almost all of his broadcasts as worthwhile aggression. Such an approach acknowledges that there will be outs on the plate but that it would be beneficial in the long run because of the amount of scoring it will generate. Last two nights against the Orioles and too much this Sox season, scoring was limited, opportunities were rare, and seeing them squandered as opposing teams responded to calls to run solid outfield relays was for the fans painfully to witness.

“He’s as good a third base coach as he is in baseball,” La Russa said. “A couple of times he kicked a guy out with two outs. We fight for runs, the guy has to make a perfect shot and he did it. You hold a guy and wait for a hit – which we didn’t do well.”

Asked ahead of the game how to balance recently promoted talent Lenyn Sosa’s playing time alongside veterans Josh Harrison (revived after a difficult first two months) and Leury García (embroiled in some of the worst fights of his career but signed a mainstay) in 2024 ) La Russa revealed that the balance he would find would largely leave Sosa out. Part of the equation is not only that Yoán Moncada returns immediately from the injured list next week, but also that La Russa has accepted Burger as a regular and needed attacking presence. The highly acclaimed Andrew Vaughn played in about two-thirds of Sox games in the first part of last season, and Burger went through a similar phase of self-serving in limited playing time before breaking through, so it’s not impossible for Sosa Going the same way sometime this season.

“Well, he’s up here temporarily right now, right?” said La Russa. “To fill in. He can go crazy and force himself into the lineup. I don’t know how many chances he’ll get.”

Sosa can’t save the Sox alone. He could be a hundred major league bats away from fulfilling his long-term promise as a major league regular, but it underscores there’s no urgent need to explore other options after an underwhelming first 69 games. Instead, La Russa is going for continuity and getting what he expected from the group of players he trusts. That includes García, which also includes the recently recalled Sheets, who established himself last season but also struggled against a left-hander in season seven while leaving Sosa – and other right-handers – on the bench. Such an approach, he acknowledges, puts the onus on La Russa to oversee the turnaround its decisions insist on.

“In this league you either do it or you don’t, and if you don’t do it, whether you’re a player or a coach, you just get the heat,” La Russa said. “The fans didn’t come out to see us getting beaten so easily. I’ll take the heat for not getting ready to play. I don’t know what else to say.”

When the Sox stumbled to a 15-20 record at home, the fans repeatedly took it upon themselves to deliver that heat head-on. When the first instance of “Fire Tony!” Chants erupted this month, La Russa took it in stride. He has officiated more than 5,000 major league games and has previously been criticized for poor performance, noting, “I like it when they care enough to be upset.”

What’s even more worrying by this metric isn’t that chants have been lifted a bit again after some recent losses. It’s because they don’t get as much momentum. In the late innings of Friday’s loss, the stands emptied too much for anything to gain ground.

(Photo by Michael Kopech: David Banks / USA Today)

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