The best team in the American League will take the field tonight against the team that was supposed to be the best team in the American League.
It’s a dream scenario for the White Sox, squaring off against the Yankees, who stumbled through much of the year but have been playing much better lately. The Sox have their full team back just in time for this nationally televised game, played on a ballfield nestled into a corn field adjacent to the site where they filmed the movie, “Field of Dreams.”
It’s finally time — about damn time, most Sox fans would tell you — for the baseball-watching world to see the White Sox team that could roll through October, with injured players back on the field and reinforcements acquired at the trade deadline a few weeks ago.
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Truthfully, it’s been a trying season for the Sox. They dealt with the loss of two of their most important lineup pieces, Luis Robert and Eloy Jimenez, for most of the season. They experienced the rise and fall of Yermin Mercedes. They dealt with the learning curve of a Hall of Fame manager, Tony La Russa, getting back into the manager’s spot for the first time in a decade. And yet, hope never dimmed, and the record never tumbled.
“After the break, we get two bats back,” shortstop Tim Anderson told SN at All-Star media day in mid-July, “and we’ll keep that wheel moving in a positive way. We’ll be just fine. We’ve been doing great even with all these injuries.”
Jimenez was the first big bat to return, after a torn pectoral tendon in spring training landed him on the shelf. He has five homers and 14 RBIs with a 1.030 OPS in his first dozen games back in the lineup.
“I was expecting a big breakout year for him this year,” Hall of Famer and White Sox legend Frank Thomas told SN in a phone interview Tuesday. “I predicted at the end of the season last year, ‘This guy’s going to come back and hit 45 or 50 home runs, with 120 RBIs if he stays healthy.’ He has that type of talent, and we’ve seen that since he’s come back. Had four home runs and 10 RBIs in two nights.”
And now Robert’s healthy, too. The runner-up in the AL rookie of the year race in 2020 was batting .316 with 11 extra-base hits and an .822 OPS in 25 games before a hip injury sent him to the IL in early May. He had two hits in his return to the lineup on Monday.
The White Sox enter the Field of Dreams game with a 67-48 record, after dropping a couple games in Minnesota to the Twins. They’re clustered at the top of the AL standings; the Rays, Astros, White Sox, A’s and Red Sox are all within four games of each other.
“Watching these guys pitch the way they have all year, the way Tony plugs guys into different positions — guys like (Brian) Goodwin — it’s been amazing,” Thomas said. “Now they’ve got their big boys back. They’ve got a lot of depth. They’ve got guys who are comfortable when you make substitutions, because all their guys can hold their own. I think it is the best team in the American League right now.”
Thomas is in Iowa for the game as part of the Fox broadcasting crew, and he was doing interviews as part of a partnership with Varilux — he was wearing his progressive lenses during our Zoom interview — before the game in Dyersville. Thomas told SN that he’s played “a lot of” charity softball games on the actual movie-set field, and it’s fun to think of him launching softballs dozens of rows deep into the corn fields.
“It’s a short field,” he said with a laugh. “Yeah, some balls were hit into the corn fields, mostly by lefties.”
If ChiSox fans are lucky, all of their shiny pieces will be on full display Thursday. Not just Jimenez and Robert, but maybe we’ll even see their dual closers, the tandem that’s a big reason Chicago fans had reason to be excited about October. Liam Hendriks made the AL All-Star team this year, and then the club went out and traded for Craig Kimbrel, a closer on the NL All-Star squad. Between the two of them, they have 49 saves on the season, with a 1.80 ERA and 148 strikeouts in 90 innings.
Carlos Hernandez is the new starting second baseman. He has 20 homers on the season, including two with the Sox after he was acquired before the deadline. His double-play partner is Anderson, the 2019 AL batting leader who made his first All-Star squad this year. He has 12 homers and 16 stolen bases on the year, with a .299 average.
“He’s a vocal leader, a true leader,” Thomas said. “He comes to play every night. You’ve got to look back at his background. He’s from Tuscaloosa, a winning area when you’re talking about football, and he was a state-champion basketball player, a point guard. Point guards are leaders, and he’s a natural leader. You see it every night. He talks the talk and he backs it up. He comes to play every night. He really gets his teammates involved, like great point guards do.”
And the rotation? Impressive. Starters Lance Lynn (2.04 ERA), Carlos Rodon (2.38), Lucas Giolito (3.81) and Dylan Cease (3.99) all can miss bats, with K/9 ratios above 10.0 on the season. Dallas Keuchel presents a contrast, as a softer-tossing lefty who has a 4.51 ERA. Rodon was just placed on the 10-day IL, but the club is hoping his stay will be short.
In addition to the Hendriks/Kimbrel combo, the Sox have lefty Garrett Crochet (2.70, 11.8 K/9) and righties Michael Kopech (2.60 ERA, 12.4 K/9) and Ryan Tepera (2.76 ERA, 10.3) in the bullpen.
“The pitching is going to take them to October,” Thomas said, “and the offense is dynamic.”
That’s pretty much a dream combo.