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CHICAGO — When the Chicago White Sox shrugged off a 16-24 start and clinched the American League West title on Sept. 17, 1983, veteran starter Jerry Koosman pointed to the players in the celebratory clubhouse who made it all happen.
“There aren’t stars here,” Koosman told the Chicago Tribune’s Steve Daley. “Stars are something in the sky. We have guys that have guys that didn’t get much attention who contributed to this all year long.”
If the White Sox hope to replicate that magical second-half run 38 years later, they’re probably going to need to use the same blueprint. Injuries have forced the Sox to rely on rookies, career backups and players thought to be washed up in the first half of the season, which ended Friday night with an 8-2 road win against the Detroit Tigers.
Leury García, Danny Mendick, Andrew Vaughn, Brian Goodwin and Billy Hamilton are among the spare parts that helped motor the Sox to first place in the AL Central, while Gavin Sheets and Jake Burger joined the entourage from Triple-A Charlotte this week.
It might seem like déjà vu for manager Tony La Russa, who weathered the storm in the first half of ‘83 while Sox fans were calling for his head and has made it through all the scattered tweetstorms that popped up during the first half of this season.
Halfway home with a six-game lead over Cleveland heading into Saturday, the Sox (49-32) have momentum and everything in their hands.
“We did what we needed to do the first half, so we control our own destiny for the second half,” closer Liam Hendriks said. “That’s all you’re asking to do. I like the fact that it’s close between us and the Indians in the division. It’s not as if it’s a blowout and then we get complacent and then we have to figure it out at the end. And from what I’ve heard speaking to a lot of the guys, that’s what happened to the White Sox last year.
“They clinched really early, got a little complacent and struggled to get it back before the playoffs started. That’s the one thing I want to stay away from — getting complacent and making sure that no matter what we’re playing as hard as we can for 162, regardless of our position or the standings.
“If we just take care of our own business, everything else will feel itself out. Look at the (Washington) Nationals in 2019. The time you want to get hot is late September, and that’s what they did.”
The letdown in September after the Sox had clinched a playoff spot is a scar that won’t easily be healed. After they lost four of their next five, José Abreu conceded the players took their collective foot off the gas.
“I agree,” Abreu said through an interpreter. “We relaxed a little bit, and that’s why we got caught in this moment.”
The Sox wound up dropping from top seed to No. 7 in the expanded playoffs and lost two of three games to the Oakland A’s to end their season. Manager Rick Renteria was ousted for reasons that never were stated but obviously were related to the late fade.
Sox Chairman Jerry Reinsdorf rehired La Russa, 76, to replace Renteria. La Russa spent the first few months of his reboot under fire for the controversial hiring and a previous DUI arrest and the first two months of the regular season playing prevent defense over fan reaction to his moves and philosophes.
Only in the last month — since the Yermín Mercedes/unwritten rules saga played out — has La Russa enjoyed any normalcy in his job. Now he’s being tested with injury-related changes in the lineup and bullpen. This is nothing new for La Russa, and his experience should pay off.
The theory in spring training that anyone could win with the loaded Sox roster was valid. But losing Eloy Jiménez, Luis Robert and Nick Madrigal to injuries made that moot. Not everyone could win with the lineups he has written out, especially since Madrigal’s season-ending hamstring injury last month.
He’s not everyone’s favorite manager, but that’s irrelevant to the players.
“He’s a legend, and everything he does and says is going to echo to the fans,” shortstop Tim Anderson said. “He plays a huge role in what we’re trying to do, so of course everything he says and does is going to be right in front of everybody.
“He’s great for what we’re trying to do. He definitely knows his stuff, for sure.”
A big part of the team’s success must be credited to the sturdy rotation of Lance Lynn, Carlos Rodon, Lucas Giolito, Dallas Keuchel and Dylan Cease, who’ve ensure the Sox are in almost every game, taking some of the pressure off the offense. But La Russa deserves credit for getting the most out of his mismatched lineups, where anyone seemingly can play anywhere at any given moment.
The Sox, meanwhile, have avoided prolonged losing streaks and endured all the mini-controversies, including this week’s verbal attack on Giolito from Minnesota Twins third baseman Josh Donaldson. General manager Rick Hahn has yet to pull the trigger on a season-altering deal that would make life easier for La Russa and his players, but he has gotten more than anyone could ask for from the pool of talent he has, from Mercedes’s red-hot April to the under-the-radar signing of Goodwin to the decision to give Vaughn a tryout in left field to begin his major league career.
But things can change quickly, as Mercedes discovered Friday when he was optioned to Triple-A Charlotte, two months after his storybook start. Nothing is promised, and nothing can be taken for granted.
La Russa’s ’83 Sox went 55-21 from July 17 to the end of the regular season, never losing more than two straight games. But after winning the opener of the American League Championship Series against the Baltimore Orioles, they lost the next three games. La Russa was fired 2 1/2 years later.
Now La Russa is back where he wants to be with a Sox team in position to run away from the pack and clinch early, giving the players a breather before October.
It’s a different world than in 1983, with a different set of characters and rules, but many of the same obstacles in his path. Instead of Julio Cruz and Jerry Jerry Dybzinski, La Russa now needs players such as Burger and Garcia to step up.
No, this is not your father’s White Sox.
But it is your father’s White Sox manager.