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Surging Sox have blueprint to take AL Central from Twins originally appeared on NBC Sports Chicago
If the Minnesota Twins keep playing like this, it won't be difficult for the White Sox to dethrone them as kings of the American League Central.
But even if the Twins shake off the early season struggles that have left them as one of the worst teams in baseball, the White Sox have shown in recent days that they have the blueprint to capture the Central crown for the first time in 13 years.
The first matchup between these two division rivals was supposed to be a tad grander than this, of course. The Twins have won the last two Central championships and came into the season as the hurdle the White Sox needed to clear before traveling further down the path toward their World Series goals.
Instead, the South Siders are surging and the Land of 10,000 Lakers are stumbling.
The White Sox, under no impression that a team like the Twins will stay this bad for too long, will take it. And they took advantage of an out-of-sorts Twins team to score a 9-3 win in the opening game of the season series Tuesday night.
How'd they do it? The same way they've been going about things all season, actually. While there's often been intense focus on what has gone wrong, the White Sox boast one of the most productive offenses in baseball and one of the game's most dominant starting rotations. Tuesday, Yasmani Grandal and José Abreu came through with five RBIs on a pair of home runs. Dylan Cease impressed the hell out of manager Tony La Russa with five gutsy innings, dancing around trouble and a crooked number in the second to keep the White Sox right in the thick of things.
Grandal and Abreu's dingers were unbelievably clutch, the catcher's three-run blast tying the game right after the Twins got a trio against Cease and the MVP's unknotting the score in the sixth. With Eloy Jiménez and Luis Robert on the shelf for months with significant injuries, it's the established veterans like Grandal and Abreu who will make the biggest difference in keeping the offense afloat. They did that Tuesday night, allowing four more runs to be manufactured later in the game, the White Sox fourth nine-run output in their last six games.
"That's why you've got to like our offense with the big guys missing," La Russa said. "There was a lot of good stuff with the home runs. One tied the game, and the other one put us ahead.
"I just like the whole offense. I just liked the way we competed through eight innings. It was a very good sign. And against Minnesota, you're going to have to do that."
Meanwhile, Cease's effort was the latest example of his ongoing transformation. It wasn't a dominant night like his last two performances, but it showed something different, that he might be more capable of exorcizing in-game ghosts than ever before. The starting rotation is truly passing the baton like an elite relay squad right now, and Cease being as impressive an arm as any of the quintet only deepens a starting staff that could carry this team deep into October.
"I tell you the first place the game was won, it was Dylan Cease," La Russa said. "After that rough second, he showed so much composure and toughness to come out there and get us nine outs. ... That’s the first place we won the game because he held that game and got himself back together and competed his butt off.
"It’s gone way beyond the stuff. It’s gone to command and location. I mean, when he got it in those nasty spots — those are good hitters there — he got swings and misses.
"It just shows he’s developing the kind of command that makes a starting pitcher special. And now you add on he’s actually showing in other starts the competitive toughness, not giving in to a tough inning and thinking, 'It’s not my day.' It’s really fun and exciting to watch."
Of course, before the White Sox can go deep into October, they have to get to October. And they'll do that by winning the division, which requires outlasting teams like the Twins and the Kansas City Royals, who they've now amassed a four-game winning streak against. By pounding the Royals over the weekend in Kansas City, the White Sox elbowed out the Central's April upstarts. A couple more performances like Tuesday's against these Twins this week on the South Side, and they can keep down the group that still strikes as their biggest competition.
Despite Tim Anderson's offseason proclamation that the White Sox were "hands down" the Central's best team, they'll undoubtedly take things one game at a time and ignore that big-picture outlook, at least if the South Side skipper has anything to say about it.
"You start building some confidence. You start understanding how we won those games," La Russa said. "Just as long as you don't lose an edge. The edge should be that you've got some confidence, thinking we've got a lot of ways to win a game.
"We've got 129 left. You just cannot lose the edge because the baseball gods will start slamming you around. It's like putting stuff in the bank right now, and you've just got to keep investing."
But Anderson made another claim during the winter, that the White Sox "have a pretty good shot of whooping on" the Twins. And that's what happened Tuesday night. History, plenty of it recent, has taught us not to assume any team dead in the second week of May, and the Twins could still produce that summer-long duel with the White Sox we all expected.
Right now, though, the White Sox are looking like what Anderson said they were: hands down the superior team.
If the White Sox keep following the blueprint that's earned them the top run differential in baseball and the AL's best winning percentage, then they'll have a good chance of snatching the division crown away from the Twins, holding off the Royals and swatting away any other team that comes their way.
"We're feeling great," Cease said. "Any time you can be at the top of the division and be on a nice streak like we are right now, it's about as good as it gets.
"These games are huge. And those teams, it's never easy, so when you walk away with a win, you feel accomplished. There's really no better feeling in the world."
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