Sox routed by Rays, own slim margin for error in title hunt originally appeared on NBC Sports Chicago
Tony La Russa called it "a stinker."
Whatever term you wanted to use for the Chicago White Sox' 9-0 defeat to wrap a weekend-series loss Sunday afternoon in Florida, it was one of their ugliest performances of the year.
"Believe it or not, it's games like this, you think about what they did right and what we didn't, and that's how you learn and you get better," La Russa said, briefly searching for silver linings. "There are several things that we'll look at, whether it's them being right or us not, and use it to improve.
"But meanwhile, that's an ugly loss, wasn't any fun to be a part of it, nobody had any fun."
While the Tampa Bay Rays ran circles around the White Sox with the highest scoring offense in baseball, the South Siders couldn't get anything going, not even after Rays starting pitcher Chris Archer was gone with a hip injury after just two innings. A parade of bullpen pitchers allowed just one extra-base knock, and the White Sox moved to .500, at 5-5, with one more series remaining in this stretch of matchups with the American League's other contenders.
Two of those series have been losing efforts, against the Rays and New York Yankees, though the two losses in St. Pete were decidedly different than the "in it till the very end" losses to the Bronx Bombers at home a weekend ago. The White Sox didn't put up much fight Saturday or Sunday, outscored 17-4 in the two games immediately following Tim Anderson's late-game heroics Friday night.
Noticeably, Anderson didn't play Saturday or Sunday, La Russa opting to allow his star shortstop to rest his legs after a particularly active evening Friday. La Russa's decision might have earned some social-media gripes, but it's hard to argue with the strategy of buying some rest in August with the goal of having Anderson as fresh as possible come October.
And Anderson's absences showed exactly why it's critical to make sure that's the case.
While the White Sox managed a series win against this very Rays team when it visited the South Side in mid June, the ability to stay afloat without the team's key cogs doesn't exactly look like a recipe for October success.
Things have been quite different with Eloy Jiménez and Luis Robert back in the lineup, the White Sox looking more capable than they did when a different contributor was emerging every night. And though Anderson is lauded for his ability to provide energy even when he's not in the game, his absence Saturday and Sunday seemed to rob the White Sox of a certain juice.
It served to illustrate that though the White Sox became contenders without some of their most important pieces, they might not to be able to become champions without them.
The margin for error that all contenders have is often slim. But perhaps for the White Sox, it comes down to having all their weapons at their disposal.
Look to the mound, where Reynaldo López did a stellar job of filling for Carlos Rodón, whose stay on the injured list is expected to end within the next five days. López has emerged as a reliable pitching presence for La Russa to turn to, either as a fill-in starter or a bullpen arm, after putting up bad numbers at Triple-A Charlotte.
But even in another decent outing — he gave up three runs and didn't walk anybody — he threw just 75 pitches in four innings. That's a workload he likely won't be asked to replicate in the postseason, of course. But had Rodón been the one on the bump, you'd figure the White Sox would have gotten more, enough, perhaps, that José Ruiz wouldn't have been plugged into the game to surrender a three-run double in the sixth and two more runs in the seventh.
A day earlier, it was Dallas Keuchel experiencing the game of inches, a ground ball hitting a base and leading to a couple runs in the first inning. A series of grounders just missed the gloves of his infielders. When he left the game, those tiny differences had added up to six runs.
The margin of error is that small if you want to be a champion.
La Russa, of course, is hoping to avoid that margin for error shrinking further by keeping Anderson as fresh as possible, by assuring that Rodón is healthy for a run deep into October and by making sure all his reserves are getting the playing time they need to stay useful.
But the Rays are a steep challenge. The Yankees proved to be, too. The Houston Astros are out there. To get past the big boys, to erase the narrative that they can't hang with the AL's finest, the White Sox need to be firing on all cylinders.
Getting Yoán Moncada to snap out of a slump would be a nice step in that direction, and he showed some signs with a homer and a double this weekend. Yasmani Grandal is working his way back to the big league team and seeing positive results in Charlotte. And Rodón will make the rotation whole again soon, perhaps as soon as Thursday.
But Anderson showed what everyone already knew, how big a piece of the puzzle he is, while watching from the dugout the last two days.
The White Sox will need them all to win the World Series.
"We'll get better because of getting our butts beat like this," La Russa said.
They're going to have to.