How the Sox are handling their first September pennant race originally appeared on NBC Sports Chicago
There's a first time for everything.
And though this White Sox team has been rebuilt for the long haul, to compete for championships annually for the better part of the next decade, for many of the team's key cogs, this is the first September pennant race they've been a part of.
The White Sox have leapt rapidly into contention mode, waking up Monday morning with the best record in the American League a year after losing 89 games. At the moment, thanks to the Junior Circuit's best offense and a couple of elite arms at the front of the rotation, they seem to have as good a chance as any team to win the AL pennant.
That's a quick ascent for the likes of Tim Anderson, Yoán Moncada, Eloy Jiménez, Lucas Giolito, Luis Robert and others — heck, even José Abreu — who are experiencing winning at the big league level for the first time.
So how are these newbies to the pennant-race scene handling things their first time around?
"I think they're reacting exactly how you want a team to react," catcher Yasmani Grandal said earlier this month. "Not thinking about it too much, they're taking it one game at a time. There's no talk of playoffs, there's no talk of World Series. It's just talk of today's game and what we need to do in order to win, and that's pretty much what you need.
"You can't be looking ahead right now, especially in the final stretch before you hit the playoffs. You can't take anybody lightly. Everybody's going to come out and try and beat you. So if you start looking ahead, that's when teams start going down.
"Hopefully it stays the same, guys keep on coming every day and try to figure out what we need to do to win today, and we'll worry about the playoffs once they get here."
Of course, the youngsters have some help.
Grandal is a veteran of each of the last five postseasons and went to back-to-back World Series with the Los Angeles Dodgers in 2017 and 2018. Starting pitcher Dallas Keuchel threw in four of the last five postseasons and won the World Series with the Houston Astros in 2017. Designated hitter Edwin Encarnación went to the playoffs in each of the last five seasons, reaching the ALCS three times with three different teams. Pitcher Gio González has made eight postseason starts in his career, including two in the NLCS with the Milwaukee Brewers in 2018.
All four of those guys were free-agent signings by the White Sox during the offseason, and it's no coincidence they all came with those kinds of resumes. That was part of the reason they were brought in, to provide not just their veteran experience from years of big league success, but their winning experience from years of competition for playoff-quality teams.
With so many "firsts" popping up as the young White Sox move further along the winning road, those are some nice resources to have.
And while the White Sox haven't done much losing in the last several weeks — they're 20-5 in their last 25 games — no pennant race is completely without its defeats. And in a shortened season where each game carries so much weight, one of the veterans' biggest contributions, according to the general manager, is not allowing one or two losses to turn into a season-altering losing streak.
"It's a unique season in a lot of different ways," Rick Hahn said last week. "But one thing that this schedule shares with past seasons, as well as what we are looking for in the future, is having ourselves in a pennant race for September. What we are experiencing now, even in a truncated season and even with an expanded playoffs, is similar to what some of these guys have been through before in the past and what we are hoping becomes an annual rite of passage over the next several years.
"I think the calmness and stabilizing presence form those guys, when you have a game get away from you like the first day in Pittsburgh (a fall-from-ahead loss), their ability to keep the clubhouse focused on the matter at hand and come out of the gates looking good that second day in Pittsburgh (a blowout win), despite a tough loss the day before. We drop the last two in Minnesota, and we came out fighting in Kansas City.
"That’s a testament to the coaches and players who have been here, but also to that mentality that some of these veterans who have been through playoff races before have helped reinforce here over the last several weeks."
According to the White Sox themselves, there's no shortage of leaders on this team, whether they've been a part of playoff races before or not.
Abreu, for example, has been described as "The Captain," whether he wears an officially designated "C" on his jersey or not. He spent six losing seasons in a White Sox uniform and needs just one win in the team's final 14 games to ensure his first above-.500 finish as a major leaguer. He's got larger goals than that, obviously, but his leadership and mentorship of the young players is paying off in big ways as the White Sox play their way through their first pennant race together, just like the leadership and guidance of the guys who have been there before.
"I think we have the right amount of guys to speak on that purpose," González said last week. "Keuchel has done a great job by expressing his feelings and letting guys know how to go about their job. I think he's done a great job of taking a leadership role in the rotation, guys have kind of followed right behind it with working their tails off.
"I think everybody is doing a great job. Believe it or not, Tim Anderson is doing a great job as a leader in the infield. Abreu is obviously the captain, a guy who runs the show. I think he does a great job of leading by example and then everyone just follows behind him.
"You can see that everyone's doing their part and playing great baseball."
Certainly it shouldn't be a surprise that Abreu and Anderson — the both of them speaking quite loudly with their MVP-caliber play this season — would be two of the guys holding the reins for this White Sox team. They lived through all the losses during the rebuilding years and have come out the other side surrounded by championship-level talent.
Abreu has been lauded for his role-model status for years and solidified how much he means to this team and how much it means to him when he spent all of last season, ahead of his short-lived free agency, talking about how badly he wanted to return and be a part of things moving forward. Anderson has spent years now talking about his desire to bring more fun to the game, and it's been apparent as he's been the lead cheerleader on the top step of the dugout whenever any White Sox hitter has done just about anything in this season without the roar of the crowd.
These guys might not have the same winning experience that Grandal and Keuchel do, but they're helping these young White Sox through this moment in their own way. In the way they've wanted to for so long.
"It's good to have those guys on the team that have definitely experienced it. A guy like myself, I want to be there, I want to be in those moments," Anderson said last week. "I think that's what it's about, playing to the end, and I'm going to give everything I've got to hopefully get there — and not just get there but carry us as far as we can go.
"We're trying to win this thing, trying to win the whole thing. Why not?"