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Playoff Panic

First, a word from the apologists of which this writer counts himself. Maybe not hard core but certainly a member of the clan.

The apology is an oft-repeated rationale even as the dust is just settling on a historic 60-game major league baseball season. Before a game had been played, had any White Sox devotee received assurance that the team would finish 10 games over .500 and make the playoffs, they would have been head over heels excited, thrilled, and exuberant. The over-under for wins was 31.5, and the fellows won 35.

So why all the teeth-gnashing and worry, and, in some bastions, panic? Because we've been treated to the highs and low, the peaks and valleys these past couple of months. The Sox humiliated sub-.500 teams to the tune of 23-5 but against the better clubs, the record was 12-20.

Manager Rick Renteria's crew enters the post-season having lost eight of the season's final 10 games. They were swept four straight in Cleveland last week, including two walk-off losses in which Renteria handled his bullpen like a parent coaching his kid's Little League team.

In addition, the Sox were amateurish last Friday, losing to the Cubs 10-0. Reliever Jimmy Cordero hit Willson Contreras with a pitch after Contreras's epic bat flip in the third inning as the ball descended into the left field stands. Both Cordero and Renteria were ejected, and Renteria was suspended for Saturday's game, which, by the way, the Sox won 9-5.

I thought Tim Anderson and the Sox invented bat flips. Does that mean only they can perform the deed?

Friday's game closed with Yolmer Sanchez on the mound lobbing the ball around 50 miles per hour toward the plate. Javy Baez hit left-handed. This was not amusing for any serious fan. On the post-game show, Frank Thomas called it an "embarrassment." The game was a mockery.

If social media contains any credence, the Hot Seat currently is Renteria's domain, though the only opinion that counts is that of general manager Rick Hahn.

After Sunday's 10-8 loss to the Cubs that featured a furious Sox comeback in the late innings, the team heads to Oakland to take on the A's in the best-of-three series beginning Tuesday afternoon. While Oakland easily lapped the West Division, the A's won just one more game than the White Sox this season.

Obviously the White Sox need to turn the page. The last 10 games have been distressing, and a reminder that this team is good but nowhere near as good as when they went 23-6 mid-season. The Sox were outscored 62-35 the last 10 games while hitting a paltry .202. The pitchers posted a 5.34 ERA thanks in part to almost five walks per game. It hasn't been pretty, and finding the right switch to flip with just 48 hours to do it may be more than this group can achieve.

The A's, however, haven't exactly been setting the league on fire either. They've dropped five of their last eight; they've scored three runs or less in six of those contests, and no more than two runs in four of those outings.

In other words, Oakland's attack has been anything but overwhelming. While the Sox hit .261- second in the league - as a team for the season, the A's averaged just .225, next to last of the 15 clubs. The Moneyball A's are famous for taking pitches and drawing lots of walks, and this season has been much the same. Manager Bob Melvin's guys have walked 238 times to the Sox' 179.

Renteria has Lucas Giolito and Dallas Keuchel rested and ready to go the first two games, but getting ahead in the count could be the determining factor in order to minimize pitch counts and stick around into the late innings.

We've seen some major meltdowns from starters Dylan Cease, Dane Dunning and Reynaldo Lopez the past couple of weeks. However, Giolito and Keuchel have remained strong. Keuchel closed the season with an ERA of 1.99, third best in the league, and Giolito hasn't given up more than three runs in four September starts.

The fact that the Sox are 1-8 the last three years while playing in Oakland is irrelevant because this is a different, much-improved ballclub over those contingents. However, the A's play well at home, winning 22 of 32 games this season.

In addition, Sox pitchers will have the advantage of the spacious foul territories in the Oakland Coliseum, arguably the most pitcher-friendly building in America.

Melvin hasn't named his starting pitcher for Tuesday. Sean Manaea has had the most rest. It will be six days on Tuesday since his last start. The problem is Manaea is a left-hander, and the Sox went 14-0 against lefties this season.

Mike Fiers is a possibility to open the series. He posted a 6-3 record and an ERA of a somewhat hefty 4.58 ERA for the season.

Melvin will go with Chris Bassitt in the second game on Wednesday. Bassitt has had a brilliant season, going 5-2 with a 2.29 ERA. The former 16th-round draft choice of the White Sox in 2011 became part of the trade that brought Jeff Samardzija to the Sox in 2014. A's shortstop Marcus Semien also was part of that deal, an exchange that in no way distinguished Hahn as Executive of the Year.

Assuming that Eloy Jimenez's sprained right foot has healed enough for him to participate, the Sox's attack seems superior to the A's. Rookie Luis Robert hit just .136 in September, but the kid got three hits Sunday and went 5-for-11 for the series against the Cubs. Tim Anderson is just 6-for-46 the last 11 games, and the Sox will need his prowess from the leadoff spot in this short series.

Melvin doesn't hesitate to use his bullpen because he has baseball's best. The A's pen posted a 2.72 ERA this season, lowest of all 30 teams. Opponents hit just .208 against Oakland relievers, who also had a WHIP of 1.13. The White Sox bullpen numbers are 3.76, .228, and 1.25, respectively, although you're not going to see Gio Gonzalez or José Ruiz, who failed miserably last week, in Oakland.

Very possibly these games will be decided in the late innings with Sox relievers Codi Heuer, Matt Foster, Aaron Bummer, Evan Marshall and, yes, fireballer Garrett Crochet setting up closer Alex Colome.

How the Sox perform this week may very well impact Renteria's future on the South Side. While making the playoffs clearly was a goal that the team achieved, they did it primarily by beating up on the weaklings.

Also, check closely the lineup that Renteria pencils on the card against Oakland. Edwin Encarnación has been a complete bust at DH this season, yet Renteria continues to use him. He'll have options at DH for the playoffs. If James McCann, Adam Engel, Yasmani Grandal or even Jarrod Dyson or Sanchez sit on the bench while Encarnación continues to seek his stroke, Renteria will be inviting a barrage of second-guessers.


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

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