Column: Chicago White Sox open May with a wild, windy win despite only 4 hits — including Tim Anderson’s grand slam

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Paul Sullivan, Chicago Tribune
·6 min read
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It was the kind of day you dreamed about last winter while scraping ice off your windshield or digging out of a snowdrift.

Summer returned Saturday on a wild and windy afternoon on the South Side, and the Chicago White Sox capitalized on the warm vibes with an opportunistic 7-3 win over the Cleveland Indians.

Starter Lance Lynn won in his return from the Injured List, Tim Anderson cranked his second-career grand slam and made two defensive gems at short and Michael Kopech threw three shutout innings while piggybacking Lynn.

The Sox struck out 13 times, including nine in the first three innings, and scored their seven runs on only four hits. But they also took advantage of the Indians pitchers’ wildness, turning six of their eight walks into runs.

“That’s an unusual one,” manager Tony La Russa said matter-of-factly.

It was indeed, and also their seventh win in nine games, no matter how it looked.

When victories like that occurred 38 years ago for La Russa’s Sox, we all called it “winning ugly.” But it’s a new day, a new generation of players and a different brand of baseball thanks to the proliferation of strikeouts and walks. Ugly is now in the eye of the beholder.

A sellout crowd of 9,451 turned out on a gorgeous Saturday on the 70th anniversary of the day Minnie Minoso broke the color barrier in his Sox debut, homering in the first inning against the New York Yankees at old Comiskey Park.

Before Saturday’s game, Minoso’s smiling face was on the videoboard as Anderson tossed balls to kids in the stands and a DJ spun Latin music to pump up the crowd. Sox DH Yermin Mercedes got so excited he jumped into the arms of director of conditioning Allen Thomas, who gamely carried him a few feet despite being outweighed by 60 pounds or more.

For a hot second, it was hard to remember the narrative from October, when we all wondered if La Russa would clamp down on the players’ fun.

“Tony’s allowing us to do us,” Anderson said. “I think that’s how you max out, get the most out of each and every one of those guys — being yourself, having fun while doing it and enjoying those moments.

“The game is tough as it is. It’s OK to enjoy those home runs, enjoy those plays.”

La Russa said watching Anderson perform reminds him of watching Michael Jordan in person at games or practices at the Berto Center.

“He’s competing and he’s having fun competing,” La Russa said, also comparing Anderson with his former Oakland A’s stars Rickey Henderson and Dennis Eckersley.

“He doesn’t walk around like ‘Hey, look, it’s all about me.’ He walks around because he’s working hard at trying to help the team win, and he does good. That’s sincerity. I said it one time — when it’s sincere, it’s different. If you do it to build your brand, now, that’s not to be respected.”

Indians starter Triston McKenzie struck out six Sox hitters in the first two innings, but it didn’t matter because he also walked four in the second inning, forcing in a run before serving up the opposite-field grand slam to Anderson. After the Indians came back with a pair of runs in the fourth, Leury Garcia’s two-run double in the bottom of the inning gave Lynn breathing room again.

Lynn surrendered a solo home run to Austin Hedges in the fifth to make it 7-3 and was removed after the inning, allowing three runs on four hits and throwing 68 pitches.

“I know there are two or three (starts) until it’s full go — whatever pitch count, no innings limit, go out there and do your thing,” Lynn said. “We’re in a good spot, and I’m going to do what they want me to do.”

The arrival of May means it’s time for the Sox to do what they do. April started poorly but ended well, and statistically speaking it looked great. The Sox led the American League in April in runs per game (5.08), average (.265) and on-base percentage (.343), while their starters led the AL with a combined 3.11 ERA. Leading the league in those categories, you would think they would have been a lot better than 14-11 entering May.

But the Sox also were 28th in the majors in fielding, while the bullpen ranked 25th with a 4.50 ERA and was tied for last with seven blown saves.

“The bullpen left a few out there for us,” reliever Aaron Bummer said. ”That’s something that’s going to go in waves. We are going to be better down there.”

Because no team in AL appears dominant, the Sox might as well stake their claim. La Russa has been trying to get playing time for everyone and sat Nick Madrigal and Andrew Vaughn on Saturday. Mercedes has latched on to the DH spot, which theoretically was a place for La Russa to get Yasmani Grandal, Zack Collins and Jose Abreu at-bats.

“We have too many good players,” La Russa said. “As long as Yermin is getting the kind of at-bat every time up there and being successful …”

Mercedes’s 34 hits in April set a franchise record for rookies in their first month, and his .412 average going into Saturday was second to only Mike Trout. He fell to .394 after going 0-for-4 and will sit out Tuesday and Wednesday in Cincinnati with National League rules in effect.

Meanwhile, Kopech, who threw five shutout innings Sunday in a spot start against the Texas Rangers, continues to deal. He allowed one hit while striking out three and has a 1.45 ERA in his return from Tommy John surgery in 2018, with 30 strikeouts in 18⅔ innings.

It’s easy to grow accustomed to watching excellence while forgetting about the long journey Kopech took to get back to this place.

“Don’t take it for granted,” La Russa said of Kopech’s importance as a swingman. “It’s like taking Tim Anderson for granted. The thing about him is he’s locked in and he’s showing a consistent mindset. He’s not celebrating. It’s always about what’s next.

“When you have that kind of attitude, you’re going to have tremendous career. But right now his flexibility is an important part of what we’ve got to do to get to October.”