Games 1 and 2 of the American League Division Series could not have gone much worse for the Chicago White Sox. The ChiSox got shut down by Houston Astros ace Lance McCullers Jr. in the Game 1 loss (HOU 6, CWS 1), then their vaunted bullpen melted down in the Game 2 defeat (HOU 9, CWS 4). Chicago is a loss away from elimination as the team heads home for Game 3.
"Our backs are against the wall right now," shortstop Tim Anderson told reporters, including MLB.com's Scott Merkin, following the Game 2 loss. "We know what we've got to do, and we've got to take care of business. We have to keep fighting and keep pushing."
In the wild card era only seven teams have come back to win a best-of-five series after falling behind 2-0, most recently the 2017 Yankees. They rallied to win three straight games after dropping Games 1 and 2 in Cleveland. Here are four things that must happen for the White Sox to have a chance at completing the ALDS comeback against the 'Stros.
1. Get a dominant start in Game 3
The great Alex Speier of the Boston Globe did the research a few years ago and found just about every team that came back from a 2-0 deficit in a best-of-five series received a dominant start in Game 3. That was true for the 2017 Yankees as well. Masahiro Tanaka threw seven shutout innings in a 1-0 win in Game 3 to spur the comeback. It all starts with the guy on the mound.
On Saturday, the White Sox announced righty Dylan Cease will get the Game 3 start over veteran lefty Carlos Rodón. Rodón had the superior regular season, though he missed time with a shoulder issue in September, and showed greatly reduced velocity when he returned. He sat around 96 mph all summer then topped out at 92.8 mph in his final start.
"The fact that we're still optimistic means that he's showing enough, but the throws he's got to make between now and Sunday and Monday, they dictate," manager Tony La Russa told reporters, including Daryl Van Schouwen of the Chicago Sun-Times, on Friday. "He throws, you see how he reacts. Just don't know for sure, and he doesn't know for sure. We've had a lot of talks about it."
With Rodón compromised, Cease is the better Game 3 option. His command can come and go, but he can also miss bats in the zone with his power stuff, that is just about the only way to beat the relentless Astros. They have one of the lowest chase rates in MLB, so they won't expand the zone. You have to beat them in the zone. Cease can do that, or at least has the potential to do that.
Either way, Cease or Rodón, getting a dominant start in Game 3 is imperative. Lance Lynn and Lucas Giolito combined to allow nine runs in eight innings in Games 1 and 2, putting tremendous strain on the bullpen. The White Sox badly need someone to go out, keep the Astros off the board into the middle innings, and give the offense a chance to build a lead.
2. Rediscover the power stroke
Speaking of the offense, White Sox hitters had 18 hits in Games 1 and 2 combined, and all 18 were singles. Not a single extra-base hit. They're only the fifth team in history with zero extra-base hits in their first two postseason games, joining the 1926 Yankees, 1939 Reds, 1974 Pirates, and 1981 Royals. Those four teams all went on to lose their series.
"I'm the kind of person that, when we lose, I like to focus on the positive," reigning AL MVP José Abreu told reporters, including MLB.com's Rhett Bollinger, after Game 1. "I think everybody tried their best today. We get value in fighting. But we also have to recognize the work that the Astros did. Their pitcher was good, and they did a good job. We'll focus on tomorrow now."
Chicago's offense had the third-highest ground ball rate in baseball during the regular season and that played right to the strengths of McCullers and Framber Valdez. Valdez had the highest ground ball rate in baseball this year, McCullers the fifth-highest, and unless you shoot a ball down the line, ground balls don't go for extra bases often. Those were bad matchups for the ChiSox.
Here are Chicago's batted ball locations in Games 1 and 2. They hit only five balls to the warning track in the two games.
Credit to Houston's pitchers. They've been great. The White Sox had the 10th-highest slugging percentage in baseball during the regular season and the Astros have stifled them. Stringing together singles and walks against postseason-caliber pitching isn't easy. When you get a pitch to hit, you better do damage. Extra-base hits are the lifeblood of a postseason offense.
The tide could turn in Game 3. The Astros are starting rookie righty Luis Garcia, who had one of the lowest ground ball rates in baseball during the regular season. Also, Garcia has already thrown 155 1/3 innings this year, nearly 50 innings more than his previous career high. Fatigue appeared to be an issue at times down the stretch and a tired pitcher is advantage offense.
Abreu, Anderson, and Luis Robert are a combined 13 for 24 (.542) in the ALDS. The rest of the White Sox are 5 for 44 (.114). That is untenable. Those three guys need help, and that helps needs to come in the form of extra-base hits. Homers, doubles, whatever best allows baserunners to advance more than 90 feet at a time. The ChiSox need their power stroke to return.
3. Use Kopech aggressively
The White Sox are carrying 12 pitchers on their ALDS roster and only three have yet to appear in the series: Cease and Rodón, their Game 3 and 4 starters (in either order), and flame-throwing reliever Michael Kopech. La Russa gave a curious answer when asked why Kopech went unused in the Game 2 defeat Friday.
"We were going to play the game today, and if we needed him to win the game, we would have pitched him," La Russa told reporters, including Vinnie Duber of NBC Sports Chicago. "... [His ability to go multiple innings is] another big asset for us. We didn't have to waste it. He could have pitched an inning today and still been available. He'll be even more available."
The White Sox had a 4-2 lead in the fifth inning in Game 2, and the score was tied 4-4 as late as the seventh, so it seems to me they needed Kopech to win the game. What's done is done though. Kopech was not used in Games 1 or 2 and that can't continue. It's time to let the Ferrari out of the garage. Kopech can overpower hitters in the zone and that's how you beat the Astros.
In a perfect world the White Sox would pair Kopech with Rodón, who may not be able to provide a ton of length as he comes off the shoulder issue. They no longer have the luxury of being picky, however. Every game the rest of the series is a must win, and if that means using Kopech after Cease in Game 3 and figuring out Game 4 later, so be it.
4. Get a little lucky
At this point the White Sox will need more than talent to beat the Astros. Houston is just too good. The ChiSox need a few bounces to go their way, a few calls to go their way, and things to break right in general. The best teams are good and lucky, and Chicago hasn't benefitted from any luck in the ALDS thus far. It starts with talent. No doubt. The White Sox need a good outing from their starter in Game 3 and they need the offense to do more than slap singles. They also need a few breaks.
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