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Sad Sacks

As the Houston Astros were idled Monday by the rain that delayed Game 4 of the ALDS, we can assume that Dusty Baker and his charges couldn't have been seen at Navy Pier or the Art Institute. Looking for them at other tourist attractions like the Shedd or the Museum of Science and Industry would have proved fruitless.

What we can assume is that wherever those athletes spent the day, the words about "sketchy stuff" uttered by Sox reliever Ryan Tepera were ringing in their ears. The profanity-laden chants aimed at José Altuve by thousands of Sox diehards throughout Sunday's rousing 12-6 White Sox triumph were still echoing in their heads.

As if the visitors needed any additional motivation.

Even with Tuesday's outcome assured late in the game, the Astros' embarrassment of the White Sox wasn't complete. After Michael Brantley's one-out RBI single, making the score 7-1, in the top of the eighth inning, the 34-year-old veteran stole second base. The thievery matched the total number of swipes that Brantley recorded for the entire season. In fact, he's stolen just six bases in the past three years.

Brantley wasn't even a member of the Astros when they won the World Series in 2017, thanks, in part, to their sign-stealing scheme. It would be two years until his arrival in Houston. He's known as a "good-in-the-clubhouse" kind of guy, a mensch in every sense. He clearly isn't "sketchy," but his feathers certainly could have been ruffled by Tepera's analysis and the treatment of not only Altuve, but of the entire Houston roster.

So the mild-mannered but highly-competitive Brantley rubbed it in, and Tony "Old School" La Russa seethed in the Sox dugout. Just like slamming a 3-0 lob into the left field seats in a blowout game, you just don't do that, according to the Sox skipper. And when Kendall Graveman's full count 94.3 mph fastball connected with José Abreu's oft-smitten left elbow with two outs and no one on in the bottom of the eighth, La Russa simply lost it.

Instead of focusing on the shortcomings of his ballclub and the merits of his conquerers, La Russa's post-game comments accused the Astros of "character shortage" and dishonesty. He was angry, an emotion that could have hindered Baker's outfit had his men chosen to get mad.

However, their response to the words and treatment of the past few days in Chicago created intense dedication to winning and additional inspiration.

Take Altuve, for instance. Was he involved in the cheating in 2017? Without question. Did he experience any heightened passion from the Sox fans' invective. Again, without question.

Altuve is an elite player, the longest-tenured Astro, having debuted in 2011. He was an MVP in 2017. In various seasons, he's led the league in at-bats, hits (four times), stolen bases (twice), and batting average (three seasons). He's a seven-time All-Star and plays second base with skill and range, as he exhibited in this series. In 11 seasons, Altuve's WAR is 41.4. Astro Hall-of-Famer Craig Biggio, another talented second baseman, amassed a WAR of 65.4 in 20 seasons. Barring injury, Altuve will pass Biggio in that category before he's finished.

Altuve added the final insult on Tuesday by smashing a ninth-inning, three-run homer off Liam Hendriks to complete the scoring. Oh, to have access to what his thoughts were as he slowly rounded the bases.

If fans at The Grate thought they were doing the Sox a favor with their taunting of Altuve, I suggest that those barbs had just the opposite effect. The haters were out in force. No need to come out of the woodwork. Like in most aspects of American life, they've assumed a place at the dining room table and on the couch in living rooms throughout the land, and The Grate is no exception.

In just about all aspects during this series, the Sox were woefully inadequate, perhaps most egregiously when it came to starting pitching. Lance Lynn, Lucas Giolito, Dylan Cease and Carlos Rodón pitched a total of an anemic 12⅓ innings, allowing 12 earned runs. The quartet fanned 13 Astros, but they also walked 12 and hit one batter. Of those 13 free passes, eight morphed into runs. This from a staff that ranked third in strikeouts and eighth lowest in walks among the 30 teams this season.

Perhaps Giolito's performance was most baffling since he walked five batters before exiting with one out in the fifth inning of Game 2. In 31 starts this season, Giolito walked as many as five hitters in just one game. Furthermore, back on July 17 he recorded his only complete game of the year in a 10-1 rout (sound familiar?) of these very same Astros. In that game, Lucas fanned eight without walking anyone.

Obviously when it most counted, Giolito stumbled. You can't chalk it up to experience because Lucas tossed a beauty in last season's first playoff game against Oakland, when he went seven innings in a 4-1 triumph. He'll rebound because he is a talented young pitcher with a varied repertoire. He simply wasn't very good last week in Houston.

On paper the Sox hit .291 for the series, and the quintet of Abreu, Luis Robert, Eloy Jiménez, Tim Anderson and Yóan Moncada combined for 28 hits and a .346 mark. Had you disclosed before the series began that these would be the final tabulations, you'd assume that the Sox would prevail.

Of course, a perusal between the lines shows that none of those 28 hits were for extra bases. Hard to believe, but true. The first 20 hits the Sox collected over two-plus games were all singles. Not until Yasmani Grandal homered in the third inning of Game 3 on Sunday did the Sox record an extra-base hit. Leury Garcia also homered with two men on in the same inning on Sunday, giving the Sox a 6-5 lead after they had fallen behind 5-1. This turned out to be the zenith of the four games as the South Siders eventually won 12-6.

While Cease was gone in the second inning on Sunday, the relief corps showed that the Astro bats could be silenced. (Note: They were shut out six times during the regular season.) After Michael Kopech got roughed up a bit over 2⅓ innings, Tepera, Aaron Bummer, Craig Kimbrel and Hendricks covered the last four frames, holding Houston hitless, walking none and fanning nine. Sox pitchers on Sunday struck out 16 Astros - the team that was the hardest to strike out during the 162-game grind.

Defense was another area where the Astros displayed their superiority. Strength up the middle usually characterizes winning teams, and the combination of catcher Martín Maldonado, Altuve, shortstop Carlos Correa, and centerfielder Jake Meyers extinguished potential rallies. Right fielder Kyle Tucker also made a few fine running catches to end White Sox threats.

Meanwhile, the Sox had no remedy for stopping the running game as the Astros attempted five stolen bases and were successful on all of them. La Russa opted not to run because Maldonado is a superb catcher who blocks low pitches as well as anyone and has a strong arm. Robert was thrown out at second in the first game, and that was the extent of the Sox running game.

In addition to Brantley's larceny on Tuesday, Tucker, who had singled to lead off the top of the fourth, stole second and third on consecutive pitches with Kopech on the mound. He scored on Maldonado's single to center, giving the Astros a 3-1 lead.

To state the obvious, a single turned into a triple which then produced a run in what was still a close game. This, my friends, is the mark of a bad ballclub. You can't let the opposition run at will, and teams have been doing this to the White Sox all season. The opposition stole 119 bases against the Sox and were thrown out just 24 times, a 17 percent mark.

And then there is La Russa, who absorbed much of the vitriol of Sox fandom. His handling of his pitching staff was most commonly mentioned. He stayed with his starters too long, according to the critics. He misused Kopech, keeping him inactive in the first two games and then having him throw 47 pitches in Game 3 before bringing him back in the final contest.

In my view, the move most open to controversy was pinch hitting for Adam Engel with Cesar Hernandez in the top of the seventh in Game 2 with the score tied at 4. I'm not sure I'd have Hernandez hit for, say, Seby Zavala, let alone a player like Engel, a very capable outfielder in a post-season tie game.

Defense takes on added importance, and the ball uncannily tends to find the weakest defenders, as it did in the bottom of the inning when Correa's drive to right field escaped the grasp of García, who had moved from second base to replace Engel. Poor Leury, who had been having problems in the outfield the last few weeks of the season, turned the wrong way, and before he made a correction the ball sailed over his head.

A difficult play to be sure, but one that Engel most probably would have made for the third out. Had that been the case, the Sox would have trailed just 5-4. As it was, Kimbrel gave up a home run to the next hitter, Tucker, to complete the scoring in a 9-4 rout.

And so ends this stage of what was once known as The Rebuild. The result was much the same as a year ago, with the exception of a division title which many critics discount because of the quality of the competition.

I don't quite see it that way because of the talent the Sox possess. Young, strong, developing talent with players like Robert, Jiménez, Moncada, Gavin Sheets, Andrew Vaughn, Cease, Kopech, and even Giolito, who have just scratched the surface of their big league careers.

Maybe the Astros of all people can be the source of future dreams for the local crew. After three seasons (2011-13) of a total of 324 losses, they recorded 70 wins in 2014 before making the post-season a year later. Despite winning 84 games the next year, the Astros took a step back, missing the playoffs. The World Series championship, however tainted, followed four years ago, and the team has now reached the ALCS five straight years.

The path is uneven. There are steps forward and back. Whether you think La Russa is the right man to guide them is irrelevant because he's not going anywhere, at least not now. The team that takes the field next spring will be different. There will be new faces, and some of the old ones will be missing. Optimism will be pervasive. So will disappointment if the result next October is eerily similar to the present.


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

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