This is now the eighth installment of “The Mourning After” series, the first seven being:
– The day after it was announced Kopech need TJ Surgery
– The day after the Padres signed Manny Machado
– The day after the Phillies signed Zach Wheeler
– The day after the Sox got beat up on Opening Day 2020
– The day after the Sox dropped the division title in 2020
– The day after the Sox hired Tony La Russa
– The day after Eloy Jimenez hurt himself in Spring Training
If you’re new here, I write these articles after something disrupting happens to the White Sox that deserves something more than some quick thoughts on Twitter. Usually, I provide a positive spin at the end. No promises today on that one.
Yesterday was a rough ballgame for the AL Central Champions. After being up 4-2 in the fifth, the White Sox allowed 7 unanswered runs on the path to a 9-4 loss and a 2-0 ALDS deficit. They will continue the series at home under the lights on Sunday night.
For last night’s game, Tony La Russa caught a lot more criticism than usual. This article is meant to go through the game and each of its critical decisions, and really get to the root of what happened last night at important junctures.
With that, let’s begin.
Starting Pitcher: Lucas Giolito
I was all aboard the Lucas Giolito Game 1 Starter train. If Ali White Sox didn’t exist, I’d say I was the conductor… I think I deserve at least co-conductor though.
I’ll say this, after the first inning, I was prepared to run that train right through Twitter.
Giolito’s final line was as follows: 4.1 IP, 3 H, 4 ER, 5 BB, 4 K. It looks a bit worse than it was, as two of those runs scored when he had already left the game, but Giolito was not sharp. That’s not on La Russa or anyone else except Giolito. To the credit of the Astros, they put up some really good at-bats and earned quite a few of those walks. Gio did battle, though, and at the end of the day, left with a 4-2 lead. At the very least, he gave his team a chance to win – even if he didn’t put his manager or team in the best position.
He departed with two runners on and one out. That’s where the wheels fell off.
Critical Managerial Decision #1: Crochet Relieves Giolito
The situation was as follows: first and second, one out, bottom of the fifth, and Yordan Alvarez at the plate. At this point, Tony La Russa decides to go with Garrett Crochet. He walks Alvarez (LHB), and gives up a two-run single to Yuli Gurriel. He gets out of the inning, but the damage is done and the game is tied at 4.
This was the first critical bullpen decision of Tony La Russa’s season. The results failed. But was it even the right decision in the first place?
This is where we approach the idea of Process over Results. As a manager, you can’t control how your players perform. However, you can put your team and its players in the best position to succeed – if you do that, very few will be too critical of any manager.
In the fifth inning, La Russa technically made two crucial decisions:
- He sent Giolito out to start the 5th to face the top of the order for a third time
- He sent Crochet as the first man out of the bullpen
I agreed with the first one, and even among those who didn’t, I think all agree that sending Giolito out to start the fifth was not the biggest issue.
Putting Crochet in as the first man out of a fully rested bullpen was not a decision that made too much sense on paper. First, consider that Crochet threw 26 pitches the night before in Game 1 and rarely threw back-to-back games all season. Lopez, Crochet, and Ruiz were the only bullpen guys to throw in Game 1 – everyone else was entirely healthy and rested.
Going to Crochet felt like a move that, on paper, was meant for a situation in which Crochet could just face one batter (Alvarez) with two outs in a lefty-lefty matchup. La Russa was likely hoping Giolito got Bregman out before departing, and then he would’ve brought Crochet in with two outs and a runner on first.
However, this was not the situation that developed, and instead of pivoting to a new plan given a new situation, La Russa stuck with the same plan for a different scenario, and Crochet struggled.
Now, can La Russa control the fact that Crochet walked Alvarez and gave up the hit to Gurriel? Of course not, that’s on Crochet. But can he control exactly who is in the game in that situation? Of course.
Out of curiosity, I asked Twitter – if, in the fifth, La Russa had put in Bummer or Kopech instead of Crochet, but the result was the same, would you have been as critical of the move?
As of this morning, I’ve received 115 responses to that question. Taking out those who maybe misunderstood my question, I’d say at least 85-90% of the answers went something like this:
If the White Sox chose to use one of two superior AND rested relievers over Crochet, and the inning still went down exactly as it did, Tony La Russa would not have received any criticism from me. Why? Because he put his team in the best position to succeed. From there, if they don’t succeed, that’s rightfully on the players. Darrin’s tweet is the exact definition of process over results. Make the “right” move on paper, and if it doesn’t work out in reality, that’s tough – but that’s baseball. But try not to make a decision that leaves a team/manager/fan base second-guessing why the move was made in the first place.
Given how this game turned out, the White Sox’ two best relievers have either not been used (Kopech) or have only seen an inning when the game was already over (Hendriks). It’s one thing if the White Sox never had a lead to protect – I wouldn’t expect to see those guys much either. But the White Sox had a lead to protect in Game 2 and squandered it with two of its stronger arms still sitting in the bullpen.
How would I have handled it, you ask? Bummer for Alvarez/Gurriel/etc. in the fifth. Tepera in the sixth (I agree with TLR there), and then some combination of Kopech/Kimbrel/Hendriks for the back 9 outs. I’d probably give Hendriks two innings because of today’s off day and the fact that he didn’t pitch Game 1. If you lose with your best relievers in the game, it’s nearly impossible to be rightfully critical. Crochet would’ve never seen an inning, and even if this didn’t work, on paper, this is one of a few scenarios in which the team is best laid out to win because the best relievers are in the game.
One of those scenarios was not executed in reality, however, and that’s why La Russa is rightfully catching the heat he is.
Critical Managerial Decision #2: Hernandez Pinch Hits for Engel
Before we even start this section, I want to make it clear that I questioned this decision as it happened:
The reason for the move was clear: La Russa wanted to keep Garcia in the game (?) and decided the best way to do that was to put him in RF and put Hernandez’s superior glove at 2B. The rationale was suspect.
Hernandez struck out, and with two runners on in a 5-4 game with two outs in the bottom of the seventh, this happened:
In all fairness, that’s a hard hit baseball. But that has to be caught – and if Engel is out there, it is caught.
Engel, in just 21 attempts, was able to post 1 Out Above Average (OAA) in RF in 2021. Garcia, in 57 attempts, posted 0 OAA – and struggled on balls he was going back on. Leury Garcia is an infielder who can play outfield when in need. He is not a late-inning defensive replacement for Adam Engel.
That was a bad move on paper, a bad move in result, and falls squarely on Tony La Russa for not putting his team and players in the best position to win. Bad process, bad result, end of story.
The reason this decision is critical is obvious: if that ball is caught, it’s 5-4 in the top of the 8th. That game has a very different feel to it than a 9-4 game in the eighth.
Postgame Press Comments
If you’re still here, it’s not getting better. There were two comments La Russa made following last night’s game that I want to touch on.
Let’s go with the first one on Kopech:
… definitely could’ve used him to win yesterday.
This La Russa gamesmanship surrounding Kopech is a likely attempt to cover up what is becoming more and more obvious the longer we go without both a Game 3 SP and a Michael Kopech appearance: Carlos Rodon is likely starting Game 3, and Michael Kopech is meant to be the first man out to relieve him.
That being said, if that’s the case, I don’t think that’s the most effective way as a team/organization to manage Games 1 and 2. The Sox effectively couldn’t use their best reliever in the first two games because of their Game 3 starter. That’s on Page 1 of The “How to Lose a Playoff Series in 2021” Manual, right next to a picture of Zack Britton sitting on the bench for the Orioles in 2016.
This isn’t 2020: the White Sox have a third fully capable starter in Dylan Cease. If Rodon needs a tandem starter to relieve him, there is absolutely no reason in my mind why he should start Game 3. If the team instead decided to pencil Rodon in for Game 4, there would’ve been no restriction on using Kopech for an inning or two in Game 2 when he could have gotten two days of rest before Game 4.
This quote needs to still be played out today when the White Sox name their Game 3 starter. However, this quote doesn’t get better if they name Dylan Cease the Game 3 SP either – because why haven’t we seen Kopech then?
Let’s move to the next one:
… there are A LOT of layers in this quote. One of them is that I do appreciate La Russa defending his guy.
That being said: I’m not sure how you all feel about defined closer roles in 2021, but as we’ve seen watching other playoff teams, the best teams rise to the top because of flexible bullpen roles with guys who can pitch whenever their number is called.
Let’s go beyond that, though, and just assume that Criag Kimbrel NEEDS to be in a closing situation to be effective. That means one of two things:
- The front office told La Russa not to use Kimbrel as a closer when they brought him over, and this quote is La Russa’s dig at the front office.
- La Russa is criticizing Kimbrel’s usage despite having full ability to determine his role.
Either scenario is not great.
I do wish he provided some clarification here, and at the end of the day, we don’t know which of those two scenarios are true because we don’t know the inner workings of the White Sox’ management system. But if this is how La Russa truly feels about Kimbrel’s usage, then this season has been an odd one.
Wrapping it Up (and the Positivity Part!)
Despite how this article might sound, the White Sox are not currently losing this series because of Tony La Russa. However, I’m still waiting for that “Postseason advantage” that the White Sox apparently gained when La Russa was hired to show up.
The reasons the White Sox ARE currently losing this series are pretty obvious. Listen, this offense has been brutally bad – they currently have 18 hits, and all of them are singles. That’s going to win you very few ballgames. Hit the ball in the air, find gaps, and hit home runs. It’s the formula to success for every team in 2021.
Both Lynn and Giolito have struggled and not gone nearly deep enough into the game to make their bullpen’s life (or their manager’s life) easier than it should be. If the White Sox are going to come back in this series, they need their starting pitchers to hold up their end of the bargain better than they have.
And, to top it all off, the Astros are a really, really good team. They don’t make mistakes, they work FANTASTIC at-bats, and are as polished of a ball club as can be. Their Postseason experience is showing, as is their talent level. This is a tough team to beat, but they are beatable. The Sox would have to stop beating themselves first, however.
I’m still excited for Game 3, because I can’t wait to attend my first postseason game. And, despite being down 2-0, it’s not all doom and gloom. The White Sox have to win three one-game series in a row. Take each game one at a time, make sure all hands are on deck, and do not try and prepare for a situation that might not even develop. Sunday’s game could be the last game of the season – the White Sox need to act like it.
Despite all of the struggles that led to this article, it’s been a joy to watch this team in 2021. The South Siders are a frustratingly talented team – bringing them home could put them on a good stretch to make a run at this series. I’m excited for the future, because this team is meant to have staying power at the top of the AL Central. Eventually, we will start to move on to making Offseason Plans, getting end of the year press conferences, and seeing how the team starts to shape up for 2022.
Don’t Stop Believin’ just yet, however.
Featured Photo: Joe Ruffalo (@jruff96) / Twitter