When everyone predicted last month the Chicago White Sox would run away with the American League Central, general manager Rick Hahn voiced concern about the possibility of getting off to a “little rocky” start.
“Just the nature of the offseason, the shortened spring, the steep schedule expectations early in the year were going to create some volatility in the roster and likely in performance,” Hahn said Monday afternoon. “I didn’t foresee losing eight in a row followed by (winning) six in a row. But it’s not a total shock that we haven’t quite found our sea legs or that this team hasn’t quite found its identity.”
Actually this Sox team already had an identity, forged during its run to the postseason in 2021. But only lately have we seen that cocky, us-against-the-world attitude on display.
The return of third baseman Yoán Moncada and reliever Joe Kelly from the injured list Monday added to the team’s swagger. But on the verge of their seventh straight win, the Sox blew a six-run ninth-inning lead and went on to lose 12-9 to the Cleveland Guardians in 11 innings before 17,168.
Michael Kopech dominated — allowing one unearned run on two hits with seven strikeouts in six innings, which matched the longest start of his career — but the meltdown denied Kopech his first win.
The Sox led 8-2 in the ninth before errors by Moncada and Tim Anderson and some shaky pitching by Tanner Banks forced manager Tony La Russa to turn to closer Liam Hendriks with two outs, two on and a four-run lead.
Hendricks gave up a single to Owen Miller to load the bases before Josh Naylor’s grand slam tied it, stunning the remnants of the crowd.
After the teams traded runs in the 10th, Naylor struck again in the 11th with a three-run homer off Ryan Burr.
The switch-hitting Moncada might not solve all of the Sox’s early issues hitting right-handers, and Kelly must prove he’s totally back about 6½ months after incurring a right biceps nerve injury for the Los Angeles Dodgers in the National League Championship Series. Still, they’re two valuable ingredients to this White Sox stew.
The Sox came home to summerlike weather Monday to begin a homestand against the Guardians and New York Yankees. Kopech, who has excelled since joining the rotation after his sabbatical in the bullpen last season, looked well on his way to his first win before the ninth-inning implosion.
It makes sense the Sox have handled Kopech with kid gloves — 29 innings in six starts — in spite of a sparkling 0.93 ERA. But does manager Tony La Russa foresee Kopech throwing into the eighth or ninth inning at all this season?
“You’re fooling yourself or somebody if you predict what he’s going to get today,” La Russa said before Monday’s start. “If he’s cruising, he can pitch seven or eight if he’s having quick outs. If not, maybe half of that.
“We know the reality is this is his first (full) year as a starter. It’s a long season and we’re going to err on the side of caution as far as extending him.”
Kopech showed his frustration in the dugout after being removed in the fifth inning of his last start against the Cubs at Wrigley Field, though he later said he understood the Sox were looking out for his well-being.
It’s hard to come out when you’re almost unhittable. Kopech had limited right-handed hitters to a .114 average entering Monday’s game with no extra-base hits against him.
“I don’t even think he’s brought anything near his ‘A’ game out yet, and he’s absolutely dominated guys,” fellow starter Dylan Cease said Monday. “When he’s clicking on all cylinders, it’s going to be scary.”
Cease, who may be on his way to his first All-Star selection, said Kopech is relearning how to be a regular starter for the first time since 2018. He missed all of 2019 after Tommy John surgery on his right elbow and sat out the pandemic-shortened 2020 season.
“He’s obviously already a good pitcher, and he had done it for spurts out of the bullpen,” Cease said. “But now it’s the next step of getting through the lineup a couple times. He absolutely has the stuff to do it.”
It has been a minute since Kopech and Moncada became the first two prospects Hahn acquired for the rebuild when he sent ace Chris Sale to the Boston Red Sox at the 2016 winter meetings. Injuries and COVID-19-related absences have prevented both players from living up to the early hype, but it’s easy to forget Moncada has played only four full seasons while Kopech had only eight career starts entering 2022.
If the promised land is on the Sox docket, both players must be vital cogs on the ride.
The Sox optioned Jake Burger to Triple-A Charlotte to open Moncada’s roster spot. Kelly took the place of reliever Aaron Bummer, who was placed on the IL retroactive to Saturday with a right knee sprain.
“Just kind of a freak thing that happened in Boston,” Bummer said. “Just on the last two pitches felt something. We’re definitely playing it smart. We’re playing it safe this time of the year and not trying to push anything, and it’ll be healthy for the long run.”
Kelly pitched a scoreless seventh in his Sox debut. His health bears watching after Hahn signed the veteran in March to a two-year, $ 17 million deal with an option for 2024. Kelly once a back injury cooking crawfish for his teammates in 2019.
“He was cooking some Cajun food,” Dodgers manager Dave Roberts said. “I guess he was standing a little longer than he wanted to. That’s what he told me.”
With their never-ending series of untimely injuries, the Sox can hopefully keep Kelly away from the stove in 2022. Hand him some takeout menus from our many fine restaurants.
It couldn’t hurt. The Sox have become experts in overcoming obstacles the last two-plus seasons, and their early travails could be a mere blip come October.
“One of the beautiful things about this game is over the course of a long summer, the true talent and true ability of the team tends to prevail,” Hahn said.
Summer arrived early Monday, interrupting our miserable Chicago spring.
We can only hope it’s a long one.