White Sox fight for life against Twins, defenders in AL Central

ANAHEIM, Calif. — Andrew Vaughn, an outfielder for the Chicago White Sox, grew up in Santa Rosa, a northern California town best known for its wineries and as the cartoonist Charles M. Schultz’s house. Vaughn said her father had known Schultz, the creator of the “Peanuts” comics, for a while and spent a lot of time at Snoopy’s Home Ice, an ice rink in town.

As for himself, according to Vaughan, he avoided the field because he did not trust individuals.

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

As the White Sox continue to slip and slide through a disappointing summer, what has become apparent is that the injury-ravaged team is relying more heavily on good arms and the unexpected emergence of guys like Vaughn. And the team’s best chance to reclaim the American League Central championship comes Monday when the White Sox play the first of 19 straight 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 relievers, in a stretch that looks to set the tone for the remainder of the White Sox season.

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

“I’m excited,” manager Tony La Russa said. “We have our field lined up.”

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 Lin, Lucas Giolito, Michael Kopech, Dylan Casey and Johnny Cueto are finally working together and is “most positive.” That’s what we’re going to do.”

Closer Liam Hendricks, who was 16-of-19 before straining his forearm tendon on June 10, is close to returning.

La Russa did not want to discuss the team’s plethora of injuries, noting that such problems are not unique to his team after a shortened spring training. But with the White Sox, it’s not just about the number of injuries, it’s about who gets hurt. According to Spotrac, the Sox currently rank fourth in the majors for most money spent on players on the injured list ($22,578,203).

Much of the team’s decline can be explained by this absence.

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

Third baseman Yoan Moncada was third in the AL last season with a .375 on-base percentage and his 33 doubles led the White Sox. He started the season on the IL with an oblique strain, returned on May 9 with a quad injury, then returned to the IL with a strained hamstring. He has only played in 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 RBIs, then took a ball off his right foot during Wednesday’s game, went for X-rays and was done for the night. His leg is encased in ice.

Even with Moncada back, the White Sox currently have nine players in the IL, including outfielders Eloy Jimenez and Adam Engel, catcher Yasmani Grandal, reliever Aaron Bummer and Dani Mendyk.

That’s why Vaughn, Chicago’s first-round pick (third overall) in the 2019 draft, was so valuable. Through Friday, he was eighth in the AL with a .357 batting average with runners in scoring position. He was also the game’s best road hitter, posting a .369 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, adaptable, takes instruction well. He’s a hungry hitter.”

He is also one of the few players who satisfies the appetite of White Sox fans who have come to expect much more from this team. Overhead favorites to win a second straight AL Central title in the season, the White Sox were given a 59.2 percent chance to win the division on Opening Day by Fangraphs, with Minnesota at 23.3 percent and Cleveland at 7.5 percent. Now, those odds have risen to 40.6 percent for the Twins, 32.6 percent for the White Sox and 26.7 percent for the relievers.

The changing landscape underscores the importance of the future.

“We know what’s in front of us,” said Josh Harrison, a versatile 12-year veteran who signed a free agent contract with the Sox in March. “At the end of the day, you have to take care of the division opponents.”

Injuries and losses have not only added frustration to the Sox’ season, but also controversy and confusion.

In a surprising move for a team with an old-school manager like La Russa, the White Sox briefly advised Tim Anderson, Luis Roberts, Jose Abreu and others not to play hard pitches that appear to be routine outings. It is based on the advice of the team’s training staff, who try to keep the players’ legs.

It’s unconventional to say the least, and a particularly odd decision to make public. But La Russa wants fans to know his guys are doing their best, even when it doesn’t seem like it.

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

La Russa, 77, has been under fire personally since last month, when he issued two walks to Trey Turner during a game against the Dodgers. Trailing 7-5 in the sixth inning, the Sox watched as lefty Max Mance followed up an intentional walk with a crushing three-run homer in a game Los Angeles eventually won, 11-9. The strategy was more defensive than it seemed: lifetime, Turner hit .254 in a 1-2 count against left-handed pitchers, and this season he’s hitting .333 in a 1-2 count. Muncy was batting .159 at the time.

Nevertheless, the occasional chant of “Fire Tony!” Since then, the guaranteed rate is heard in the field. La Russa says he likes the passion of the fans and would rather have that than apathy. The White Sox players are avoiding it.

“So get a good pair of headphones and don’t pay attention to it, man,” Anderson said of the excess noise that has accompanied the team’s disappointment this year, from LaRussa’s negative to the episode. Yankees shortstop Josh Donaldson, who was fired for making disrespectful comments toward Anderson.

Yes, several White Sox players said, they understand the growing frustration. But they also expect improvement as key players return to active duty, saying it’s too early to obsess over rankings.

“The thing is, we get asked that question all the time,” Kopech said. “How does it feel? Nobody likes to lose. We are 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 over the next three weeks on deck, tomorrow is here. For perspective, Lin took a crack at La Russa in St. Louis in 2011 and says he sees both the manager and his team getting worse.

“It’s part of this culture,” Lin said. “Everyone expects everything to be perfect all the time, and when it’s not perfect, they have someone to blame. It’s part of the concert. He does everything he can to put us in the best position to win. It doesn’t come out for several days.”

Lin points to the 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 final day of the season. Then they won La Russa’s second World Series in St. Louis.

“I’ve seen a lot of weird things in this game throughout my career, and this is no different,” Lynn said. “You just have to weather the storm.”

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