Last year, the White Sox climbed to 49-50 with a rollicking 9-2 win over the Boston Red Sox -- with Jose Quintana on the mound, of all people. The victory was their seventh straight, and they had a good chance for eight and a .500 record with Chris Sale against a largely unknown Steven Wright in their 100th game of the season.
Sale got nailed with a comebacker in the first inning to set the tone for a rough night. The White Sox lost 8-2 to fall to 49-51, Adam LaRoche pitched against the Yankees the next day, and the White Sox never came within one day of .500 over the rest of the 2015 season.
By that standard, the 2016 White Sox have already exceeded last season. James Shields did what Sale couldn’t, shutting down a high-powered offense while the offense posted enough runs to get the team back to .500.
It doesn’t yet change the complexion of the season. The White Sox are still eight games out of first in the AL Central with the Tigers lodged in between. They’re six games out of the second wild card with the Astros, Tigers, Yankees and Mariners between them.
The only thing that’s changed in between now and Rick Hahn’s "mired in mediocrity" statement is Kansas City. The Royals lost their fourth consecutive game on Tuesday, a 13-0 defeat at the hands of the Angels that kicked them down to 48-51. That’s not enough to dramatically revise the postseason odds. Both FanGraphs and Baseball Prospectus give the Sox a 5 percent chance of October play.
With five games in between now and the trade deadline, the White Sox probably need to win all five -- making that nine in a row, math wizards — to make a dent in the odds and justify any kind of addition with 2016 in mind. Standing pat near .500 didn't help last season, and there's less reason to be inactive in this year's market.
Yet, from his pregame comments, one gets the idea that Kenny Williams does not want to close the door on his old course of action:
"You have the conversations,’’ said Williams, who made one of his occasional appearances around the batting cage before the Sox hosted the Cubs Tuesday at U.S. Cellular Field. "[General manager] Rick [Hahn] is having all the conversations, most of them coming his way — teams calling him. We’ll sit down after he kind of gets his game plan together and we’ll discuss and debate as we always have. To say we’re going to be buyers or sellers or some combination, we just don’t know. We just don’t know.’’
Judging from the responses and mentions I received on Twitter, a fair amount of fans will automatically process this in whichever way produces the most quixotic result. I get that, but I don’t think Williams altered the underlying message Hahn delivered last week, which ruled out two-month rentals at its most specific. That’s really the only thing that makes zero sense, which leaves the divergent paths of subtracting from this year's team for the future, or keeping the band largely intact and making one last run at glory in 2017. I’d say Williams answered the question he was asked without undercutting his GM — he just had the luxury of answering after a four-game winning streak, and not after dropping five out of six.
Williams, who was the target of Sale's spring training outburst concerning the Adam LaRoche saga, was asked if the Sox need to handle Sale any differently because of several incidents over the last few years.
"I'm more interested in everyone moving on," Williams said. "Any further comment beyond what I just said is counterproductive to all of that. At one point in my career, you probably could have gotten me to comment in a very different way. I'm sure it would be more entertaining for all, except me."
The only thing Williams was willing to say is that Hahn and Robin Ventura couldn’t have handled the situation any better. That may be true, but it’s also treating the symptom, and who knows whether the actual infection has been addressed.
At least the ball is back in Sale’s court in the only good way. By winning Tuesday’s game, his return on Thursday will be significant, no matter what Anthony Ranaudo does in between.
If the Sox win a third straight against the Cubs and five overall? Sale takes the mound in a position for a sweep of the National League’s best team.
If Ranaudo flops? Sale will get a chance to redo last year’s scenario, with the hope that a strong start will get the White Sox out of the ranks of losers.
Whichever happens, Sale’s performance will once again be the story. Well, unless he continues lecturing his manager through the media. Robin Ventura doesn’t seem particularly pleased with Sale’s challenge, but if this story lingers, it’s not because the manager did the talking.
Ventura also has had at least one previous run-in with Sale, but he said the two could co-exist.
"Yeah, absolutely. Absolutely," he said, and left it at that.