The White Sox greatest push for a 2021 season filled with what they envision as vast excellence might have taken root in their postseason failure to end the '20 campaign.
The A's knocked out the South Siders in three games during the American League Wild Card Series. The two losses came back to back after Lucas Giolito threw six perfect innings in a Game 1 victory.
“There's no bones about it. Everybody in this locker room right now knows we were the better team, but ultimately, we lost,” said White Sox left-hander Dallas Keuchel, who will start Game 2 of the season-opening series in Anaheim. “We want to prove this year that, 'Hey, this is our time.”
Keuchel finished fifth in 2020 AL Cy Young Award voting, earning five second-place votes after posting a 1.99 ERA over 11 starts. But Keuchel allowed five runs (three earned) over 3 1/3 innings during a Game 2 loss to Oakland, a game Keuchel called a personal letdown.
Each player who was a part of the first White Sox playoff team since 2008 has a chip on their shoulder developing after the series setback. Take the bullpen in Game 3, which had been solid all season, but then allowed six runs over 8 1/3 innings and eight relievers used.
“That left a sour taste, and I think it did with everybody as far as how that went,” said right-hander Evan Marshall, who threw 45 pitches over two innings and took the loss in Game 3 of the AL Wild Card Series. “If we run it back again, just the experience would be enough where we could probably overcome hitters or whatever was going on that day.
“As a 'pen, we threw 8 1/3 in that game, and we really didn’t represent ourselves very well. So I think everybody has been motivated to work really hard this offseason just in case we are in that scenario where we have a bullpen game again. We’ll be more ready to take on that challenge.”
There was no resting on the 2020 success for the White Sox front office. Tony La Russa, who is a Hall of Famer with three World Series championships and 2,728 career victories, was brought in as the new manager. Right-hander Lance Lynn was acquired via trade from the Rangers for the rotation’s third spot, while closer Liam Hendriks, right fielder Adam Eaton and starter Carlos Rodón, who had been non-tendered in December, signed via free agency.
Now, the White Sox quite possibly have the best bullpen in the game, a strong front three to lead the rotation and a potent offense, even with the loss of Eloy Jiménez (ruptured left biceps tendon) for five-to-six months. Anything short of reaching the postseason for a second straight year, marking the first time it would happen in franchise history, would be classified a major disappointment.
“Absolutely. Absolutely,” Marshall said. “Even if we missed it by a half-game and let’s say it was a record-setting year for all the division winners, where us with a winning record still didn’t make the playoffs, we would be very disappointed regardless of how many wins we totaled.”
And White Sox players know the talent possessed by this group. Giolito has talked about it previously. Michael Kopech, who joins Garrett Crochet as two future premium starters bringing their electric repertoire to the bullpen this season, mentioned Sunday how this topic was discussed recently in a meeting between pitchers and catchers.
“A few of us were just mumbling among ourselves that this is easily the best squad we've ever been on, and it's not even close,” Kopech said. “So we're just excited to get together and really compete as a team and see what we're actually going to do this year. Really, the entire bullpen is focused and talking among ourselves about how good we can be.”
Keuchel, who was part of the 2017 World Series champion Astros, had a similar conversation to share concerning the White Sox pitching staff.
“I've always loved the game of baseball, but I told pretty much the group, I think it was [Saturday], I said, ‘We have a chance to be really special this year,’” Keuchel said. “Top to bottom, this is probably my most talented group. … I would assume we're going to come in with smiles on our faces pretty much every day, knowing that we're going to come out and have a really good chance to win that night."