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Here Comes October

With one swing of the bat by Adam Engel on Sunday afternoon in Baltimore, the White Sox wound up nestled in about as good a position as anyone could have hoped for going into the All-Star break this week.

Engel's three-run, 10th-inning blast, his fifth homer in just 46 plate appearances due to injury, overcame a rare blown save by closer Liam Hendriks. Once the potential tying run - a fly ball off the bat of DJ Stewart in the bottom of the 10th - settled into Engel's glove a foot in front of the centerfield wall for the game's final out, the South Side crew could breathe easily knowing that a four-day respite loomed ahead.

While Hendriks couldn't nail down the victory in the ninth inning for what would have been his league-leading 24th save, Matt Foster, he of the 6.15 ERA, registered his first ever. Not only was it a 7-5 win over the last-place Orioles, completing a three-game sweep, but coupled with four wins in Chicago at the end of May, the Sox swept all seven games against Baltimore this season. In the entire 120-year history of the franchise, no Sox team had recorded seven straight wins without a loss in a season series against one team.

But wait. There's more. Lots more.

The Sox hit their high-water mark of the season Sunday, 19 games over .500 at 54-35. They hold an eight-game lead over second-place Cleveland.

With the Sunday's win, Tony La Russa's outfit had sandwiched two five-game win streaks around three losses primarily against sub-.500 clubs. The Sox have pummeled teams with losing records this season to the tune of 38-11. So what if they're 16-24 against the clubs with winning ledgers. That only matters come playoff time.

Talking about October baseball, Baseball Reference had the Sox's chances to make the playoffs at 98.5 percent going into Sunday's action. They were overwhelming 98 percent favorites to stay atop the Central Division. At worst, the projection for the rest of the season leaves the Sox with a 87-75 record, in which case they'd trail Cleveland's best projection by a game. At the same time, the prognosticators see the Sox winning as many as 101 games. Wouldn't that be nice?

Looking at the standings at the All-Star break going back to 2015 - not counting last year when there was no All-Star Game - of the 30 teams in first place in each of the six divisions, 21 held onto the top spot for the remainder of the season. And the nine who dropped out of first place still qualified for the post-season, thus giving further encouragement that the current South Siders will be playing in October.

As mentioned, Cleveland trails the pace-setting Sox by eight games. Again, going back to 2015, the Dodgers, who trailed the Giants by 6½ games in 2016, made up the most ground of any team since 2015, eventually winning the division by four games. No club in this time frame has come from as far back as Cleveland is now.

To summarize, barring a total collapse, the White Sox will be a playoff team for the second consecutive campaign.

However, if the odds prove prescient, going deep in the playoffs is another story. Once the regular season resumes for the Sox on Friday, the Houston Astros will visit The Grate, the same ballclub that embarrassed the South Siders in Texas last month, sweeping the Sox four straight while outscoring them 27-8.

The Astros have a 31.5 percent chance to win the AL pennant, says Baseball Reference, while the Sox come next at 22.6, followed by the Rays at 21.5 and the Red Sox at 15.2. The Dodgers, even though they trail San Francisco by a couple of games, remain favored to win the World Series at 32.5 percent compared to the Astros at 15.5. The odds of the Sox winning it all stand about one in 10.

Of course, we're talking about predictions and forecasts here, and we know that history, while looking favorably upon our White Sox, can be quirky.

The 1951 New York Giants trailed the Brooklyn Dodgers by 13 games on August 11 before going on a 16-game winning streak and ending the season with 37 wins in 44 games to tie Brooklyn for first place. Bobby Thompson's pennant-winning home run - "The shot heard 'round the world" - in the third game of a playoff completed the Giants' epic run.

The Yankees overcame a mid-July 14-game deficit in 1978 and beat the Red Sox in a one-game playoff, thanks to the memorable home run by former Sox shortstop Bucky Dent. The Yanks then went on to win the World Series.

Moneyball highlighted the Oakland A's' 20-game win streak in 2012 as the team rallied from 13 games behind on June 30 to grab the AL West division, going 57-26 the last three months of the season. Bowing to the Tigers in the League Division Series ended the A's' aspirations.

And most recently, the 2019 Washington Nationals were crawling along on May 23 with a 19-31 record and wound up winning the World Series.

With the trade deadline approaching on July 30, general manager Rick Hahn will be cautious since his ballclub will gain two key additions in the coming weeks without having to sacrifice any future prospects in a trade. Eloy Jiménez, idled all season, began a rehab assignment last weekend at Winston-Salem and should be back with the Sox by August 1. Centerfielder Luis Robert isn't far behind. No other contender will be able to add that kind of talent for the stretch run.

Jiménez already drew as much attention as his mates last weekend in Baltimore. In his first game back on Saturday, Jiménez had a couple of hits including a home run to left field. In eight plate appearances, he hasn't struck out as he split time between left field and DH.

Meanwhile, Robert, who managed to stay on the field the first 25 games of the season, is ramping up his baseball activity in Arizona. A Gold Glover last season, Robert was hitting .316 before he tore his right hip flexor on May 2.

Catcher Yasmani Grandal also is slated for a return in mid-August after surgery last week to repair a knee tendon.

Leury García has taken pressure off Hahn by filling the void at second base due to Nick Madrigal's season-ending injury. Pittsburgh's Adam Frazier and Arizona's Eduardo Escobar, who initially signed with the Sox in 2006, have been most frequently mentioned as trade targets for Hahn.

However, García arguably has been the Sox top player since Madrigal went down a month ago. Leury is slashing .321/.402/.915 in 24 games during this recent stretch, driving in 20 runs and playing a solid, if not spectacular, second base. Only José Abreu, with 66, has more RBIs than García's 39 for the Sox this season. No one saw this coming. The idea of making a trade to replace García makes little sense at this juncture.

As mentioned, four players from the Sox regular starting lineup - Jiménez, Robert, Madrigal and Grandal - have been sidelined for prolonged periods, yet the club has been in first place every day since May 4. There have been many contributors, but none as important as the five starting pitchers whose combined 3.39 ERA is second only to Houston's 3.35 in the American League.

So while the injuries have been huge barriers to hurdle, the team's starting staff has barely missed a regular turn. Had any of Lucas Giolito, Lance Lynn, Carlos Rodón, Dylan Cease, or Dallas Keuchel been sidelined for a considerable stretch, La Russa's crew wouldn't be 19 games over .500 today.

One might argue that Michael Kopech could step in to provide a more than suitable replacement, but he also missed time with a hamstring problem. Kopech is back now, and in two one-inning appearances last week, he retired all six batters he faced, striking out all of them. Kopech threw 28 pitches, 23 for strikes.

Before the snow flies, Kopech very well could be the determining factor for how far the Sox can go because he can be a force out of an inconsistent bullpen, and La Russa may be able to get five or six innings from Kopech in a starting role. Kopech just needs to stay healthy.

If Hahn can swing a deal for a proven relief pitcher, he might be willing to part with a prospect or two, but he might be just as smart to keep checking the waiver wires. Signing rejects Jake Lamb, Billy Hamilton and Brian Goodwin has worked out splendidly so far, and those additions didn't cost him one young player from the farm system.

La Russa hasn't suffered from a shortage of critics since he was hired last October, but that cadre of complainers seems to have shrunk with the team's success so far. Say what you will about the manager's strategy and handling of young players, but one trait unknown to the venerable skipper is complacency. Whether they're eight games in front or eight games behind, the goal won't change in the coming days and weeks.

This weekend against Houston could preview the future, even though the Sox will be performing without some of their key players. The Astros rallied for six runs Sunday in the bottom of the ninth inning to nip the Yankees 8-7. José Altuve's three-run walkoff shot was the game-winner. Houston also is 19 games above the .500 mark. They're 26-17 on the road and 7-3 in July. This isn't Baltimore coming to town. We'll get a glimpse of what may turn out to be a match-up made for October.

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Former Bill Veeck bar buddy Roger Wallenstein is our White Sox correspondent. He welcomes your comments.

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Posted on Oct 11, 2021