Homer-happy Sox change things up with a small-ball barrage


Frank Menechino was likely a happy man Friday night.

Just two weeks earlier, the White Sox hitting coach ominously predicted problems for his team's ferocious-looking offense if they leaned too heavily on the long ball.

"If we're only going to score with home runs," he said Aug. 20, "we're in trouble."

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Indeed the White Sox have been one of baseball's most powerful teams, their 68 home runs the most in the American League, where they also rank first in slugging percentage (.473) and OPS (.806). And that power is often on display on a nightly basis. In the first game of the ongoing four-game set in Kansas City, the White Sox launched three long balls, no ball longer than Luis Robert's jaw-dropping 458-foot shot that bounced off some stairs beyond the left-field fence.

But a night later, the White Sox showed something: This lineup can produce the same kinds of big numbers without the assistance of their usual barrage of blasts.

Small ball was the name of the game in Friday's 7-4 win over the division-rival Royals, the White Sox dumping another truckload of runs on a team they've dominated this season. Friday night's win made it seven of eight against them in 2020, good news for a group of South Siders looking to lock up a playoff spot after dropping the season series to the 103-loss version of the Royals in 2019.

The White Sox scored seven runs on 14 hits, all but two of them singles. They got a run on a wild pitch. They executed a perfect hit and run. They had multiple sacrifice flies. They showed off some heady base running. They manufactured runs.

When the playoffs come, the White Sox figure to be there, and they figure to bring their power stroke with them. But just in case some seriously stellar pitching keeps them in the yard, they've proven they can win that way, too.

"They ground out some at-bats, they did a few things," manager Rick Renteria said after the game. "If you put a good approach, have some good at-bats, get some runners on base, it doesn't necessarily take a homer to drive in runs."

Music to Menechino's ears, surely.

Though they never trailed, the White Sox never quite shook the Royals in this one. Dane Dunning only gave up three runs, and his ERA still remains below 4.00 just three starts into his big league career. But he lasted only 4.2 innings as a worrisome trend for White Sox starting pitchers continued; they've gone eight straight games without getting more than five innings from a starter. And the Royals hung around.

That is, they did until José Abreu delivered another big hit during his MVP-type season. The White Sox were in front by a run thanks to Edwin Encarnación's base running. Seriously. He might not be famously fleet of foot, but he took advantage of his opportunities, first going first to third on a ball hit to center field and then scampering home on a wild pitch to put the White Sox up a run in the fifth inning. The way the game had gone to that point, though, a one-run lead was hardly safe, and Abreu fixed that an inning later. He doubled in a pair of runs with two outs.

A two-run double might not technically be small ball. But in today's homer-happy era of baseball, it's pretty close. Abreu's got big power numbers — an AL-high 38 RBIs to go along with his dozen homers, the Junior Circuit's fifth highest total — and he's been right in the middle of everything this team's done in 2020. So it makes sense he'd come through in the clutch on Small-Ball Night, too.

"What can I say? Abreu is one of the best hitters I’ve ever seen," left fielder Eloy Jiménez said. "He’s a super clutch hitter. Every time he’s at the plate, I learn something. He tries to show us something to learn every night, every at-bat. It’s really good to see him produce those runs for us."

The repeated bombs off the bats of Robert, Abreu, Jiménez and everyone else will continue to grab all the glory. But hey, there's some room in this world for small ball, too. Nick Madrigal, who drove in a run Friday with a perfect "hit 'em where they ain't" single up the middle, is showing that with some consistency. He might have banged that sim-game home run off the scoreboard in Schaumburg. More impressive, though, is his .400 batting average through his first 11 big league games.

Friday night, the White Sox all got a taste of what it's like to be Nicky Ballgame.

They're also tasting the intensity of the pennant race they're currently locked in with their division rivals from Minnesota and Ohio. It's a tight one, but the White Sox are currently in first place all by themselves, the Twins and Indians locked in a second-place tie just a half game behind.

Just how far the White Sox will go once October comes will be better defined by how they fare against the Twins and Indians the rest of the way than by how they continue to knock around the Royals. But knocking around the Royals is a good way to get to October in the first place.

Friday night, they showed they've got another tool in their toolbox.

Everyone digs the long ball. But as long as it means winning, White Sox fans will dig some of the other stuff, too.

"We have a really good offensive team. So we can score runs without homers, and with homers," Jiménez said. "We showed them what we can do, and we just keep grinding, working hard and going out and playing hard.

"That was the mentally when we were in spring training: Get (to this point in the season) and compete for a playoff spot. So now we are here. We try to do our best, and we compete every night, no matter what.

"It's good to be fighting for a spot."

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