By: Joe Botana
Like nervous parents, Sox fans anxiously awaited the team’s first report card of the new year. Last season brought alternating periods of frustration, hope, and frustration. First, a team expected to compete dropped almost completely out of contention by the All-Star break. This was followed by a pre-trading deadline winning streak which revived hope and caused the front office to not embark on an anticipated selling spree. This was in turn followed by a series of swoons where the Sox found creative new ways to lose important games, including one in which ace Chris Sale gave up three home runs in one game to a pair of hitters who only hit eleven between them for the entire season. Every time it became obvious they were done, they won a few games as other teams lost in the race for a second Wild Card no one seemed to want to win. It was exhausting and painful to watch, and when it mercifully but unhappily ended in October, most Sox fans were ready for the off season.
As the winter of discontent wore on, it initially appeared the Sox front office might be ready to embark on a rebuilding project. Mainstays of the 2015 roster like Tyler Flowers, Alexei Ramirez, Geovany Soto, and Jeff Samardzija were allowed to leave in free agency. But then the team made trades to bring in in top tier talent in the persons of Brett Lawrie and Todd Frazier, and added free agents Dioner Navarro and Matt Latos, making it seem likely that “winning now” was likely still the prime directive for 2016. Spring training was also a progressive dichotomy. The circus revolving around Drake LaRoche’s presence in the clubhouse, Adam LaRoche’s subsequent retirement, and Chris Sale’s well-publicized outburst against Kenny Williams, raised serious doubts about the chemistry of a team that put together a successful 17-13 body of work in Arizona, good enough for a fourth place finish in the Cactus League.
Uncertainty about the upcoming Sox season was not limited to the fan base. Four preseason prediction models picked the Sox to finish first, second, fourth and fifth respectively in the ALCD. The standard deviation in the number of wins predicted for the Sox by the four models was the largest for any team in MLB. Even to the professional prognosticators, the 2016 Sox are like Forrest Gump’s proverbial box of chocolates. “You just don’t know what you’re going to get.”
Game by game series results
The schedule makers started the White Sox off in Oakland against the Athletics for a four game series. In the first game, ace Chris Sale was scheduled to face A’s ace Sonny Gray, but the latter was scratched with a serious case of food poisoning. The Sox jumped out to a 4-0 lead in the top of the third, thanks to RBIs by Adam Eaton and new arrival Jimmy Rollins and two unearned runs courtesy of A’s errors. The A’s jumped back into the game with three runs in the bottom of the frame against Sale. This is the type of game the Sox would go on to lose during the frustrating 2015 season. This time, however, the Sox held on to win. Even though the Sox offense was quiet after the third, Sale was masterful through seven innings, allowing no more runs and striking out eight A’s and walking only one to earn the win. The bullpen gave up only a walk in the final three frames, as Dave Robertson earned his first save.
The second game saw a see-saw battle between the Sox and A’s. Carlos Quintana got the start and gave up only two ERs over 5 2/3rd innings of seven strikeout ball, and left in the bottom 1/3rd of the sixth holding a 3-2 lead. Unfortunately the bullpen, one of the Sox’s Achilles heels in 2015, could not hold it. A dominant inning by Matt Albers was followed by single runs surrendered by Zach Duke in the seventh and one in the eighth by Nate Jones to earn him this first blown save of the year. Once again, this was the way the Sox lost games in 2015. However, at least thus far, 2016 is different, thanks to the efforts of the new arrivals. Having taken the lead on a three RBI HR by Todd Frazier in the 5th, they got a fourth run in the sixth courtesy of Brett Lawrie, and the winning run on a ninth inning HR by Jimmy Rollins off A’s closer Sean Doolittle. Dave Robertson pitched a scoreless 9th to earn his second save of the season and hand eighth inning goat Nate Jones the win.
Having won two close one-run games, the Sox went on to lose one in the third game, falling to the A’s and their fully recovered ace, Sonny Gray, by a score of 2-1. Yet, even here, Sox fans can find positives. Carlos Rodon recovered from a shaky start, as he surrendered single runs to the A’s in each of the first two innings, and went on to pitch five more frames of shutout ball, for a total of seven solid innings with seven strikeouts. Ironically, after three games, he had the lowest ERA of the three Sox starters, but is the only one with a “1” in the loss column. Jake Petricka pitched a two walk and two- strikeout scoreless eighth to give the bullpen another successful appearance, but Gray was masterful in his delayed start and limited Sox batters to a single run, as newcomer Jimmy Rollins stayed hot to earn his third RBI of the season.
In the rubber game of the series, the Sox broke the mold of the previous three, as they won by a comfortable 6-1 margin. Newly acquired Matt Latos tossed six masterful innings of one-hit shutout ball to secure the win. Jose Abreu opened the scoring in the sixth with a two-run HR to give Latos and the Sox the lead, and the south-siders added four more in the ninth to put the game out of reach. The bullpen gave up a meaningless run in the bottom of the ninth but was solid otherwise. The win was also Robin Ventura’s 300th as manager of the White Sox.
Series Wrap Up
The Sox leave Oakland with a 3-1 record, an “A” on their first test of the 2016 season, and several important positives. The newcomers signed during the off season played extremely well in all aspects of the game. All four starting pitchers were extremely effective. Except for what turned out to be a “no harm no foul” hiccup by Nate Jones in game two, the bullpen has also been effective. Perhaps most importantly, they have prevailed in two of three one-run games. A very different look and feel compared to the frustrating 2015 season. This earns them the good grade and is definitely a positive sign of what is to come.
What Comes Next
The White Sox (3-1) return to Chicago for the home opener against the Cleveland Indians (1-1), projected by the consensus of four polls to win the wide-open ALCS in 2016, and therefore a key competitor the south siders must overcome. John Danks will take the hill for the Sox and face the Tribe’s Danny Salazar. Because of weather issues in the Cleveland-Boston series, it will be a matchup of #5 vs. #3 pitchers respectively. Chris Sale should return on Saturday for his second start against Cleveland’s Josh Tomlin, with Carlos Quintana likely to pitch on Sunday and oppose Cleveland Ace Corey Kluber (0-1) who lost their opener against the Red Sox in frigid winter ball type conditions. The Sox and their fans would welcome at least a 2-1 series outcome, which would leave them with a solid early lead over their division foes at the end of the first week of the young season.