The Chicago White Sox needed a sweep to have a realistic chance at surpassing the Cleveland Guardians in the American League Central.
Instead, they were swept.
And now a team that had World Series aspirations is on the verge of missing the postseason.
The Sox entered Friday’s series opener against the Detroit Tigers trailing the Guardians by seven games — eight considering the Guardians own the tiebreaker — with 12 remaining after losing three straight at Guaranteed Rate Field.
Tuesday had a playofflike buzz, with the Guardians winning 10-7 in 11 innings. That victory secured the important tiebreaker edge for the Guardians.
The Sox never recovered, falling 8-2 in an uninspiring performance Wednesday and seeing a late rally come up short Thursday in a 4-2 loss.
The players looked at the larger picture.
“We’ve had our spurts of playing really good baseball, but it just wasn’t consistent enough,” right fielder Gavin Sheets said after Thursday’s loss. “It doesn’t come down to these three games for sure. I think we all would agree that we should have played better baseball, and it’s frustrating.”
The Sox have been consistently inconsistent for much of the season.
But they had a chance to get within one game in the division heading into the Guardians series if they would have won all three. And they didn’t get the job done.
Here are three reasons why the series got away from the Sox.
1. The Guardians made the most of their opportunities.
Whether it was an outfielder taking a spill, as was the case for Sox left fielder AJ Pollock on Tuesday, or an infielder not being able to complete a potential inning-ending double play, as was the situation for Sox third baseman Yoán Moncada on Wednesday, the Guardians were ready to cash in on chances.
Andrés Giménez made it to third for a triple in the second inning Tuesday after Pollock fell while going after the ball. Giménez scored on a one-out sacrifice fly.
The Sox scored three in the sixth to take a 3-1 lead, only for the Guardians to tie the game in the seventh with back-to-back walks issued by Jimmy Lambert at the start of the inning coming around to score.
The Sox rallied in the 10th, matching the Guardians’ two runs with two against top-notch closer Emmanuel Clase. But the Guardians pulled away in a five-run 11th, with the team’s final run coming when Amed Rosario stole third and scored on catcher Seby Zavala’s throwing error.
Acting manager Miguel Cairo blamed himself after the game, but Pollock was quick to say that wasn’t the case.
“I had a funky (defensive) play in the (second),” Pollock said. “Trying to make an aggressive play and got caught in a weird spot, and it was probably a double and it ended up being a triple, and the run that ended up scoring was a big run.
“A couple missed opportunities throughout the game. A couple defensive miscues. It was execution on our end for sure.”
2. The Sox couldn’t slow down the Guardians on the bases.
Rosario set the tone Wednesday, grounding to third and beating Moncada’s throw to first. Rosario didn’t score, but it was an example of the pressure the Guardians apply on each play.
“You have to be very alert on every ball that they hit because they have very good speed,” Moncada said through an interpreter after Wednesday’s game. “You have to try to attack because you know they have speed and they can beat you.”
The Guardians found ways to manufacture runs against tough pitchers such as Johnny Cueto, who allowed four runs — three earned — on eight hits in six innings Thursday.
José Ramírez reached on an infield hit in the first, moved to third on a single and scored on a bunt single by Giménez.
Two innings later, Rosario reached on an infield single, moved to third when Cueto threw wildly on a pickoff attempt and scored on a Ramírez sacrifice fly.
“They run and they hustle,” Cueto said through an interpreter. “They play hard. And they put the ball in play.”
3. Triston McKenzie and Shane Bieber cooled off the Sox’s bats.
McKenzie struck out Sheets and Andrew Vaughn to begin the second inning Wednesday.
It was the start of another big strikeout night for McKenzie against the Sox. He struck out two batters in six of his eight innings and finished with 13. McKenzie struck out 14 Sox on Aug. 19 at Progressive Field.
“He knows how to pitch against us, and we have to tip our cap,” Moncada said.
Bieber didn’t put up the big strikeout numbers Thursday, finishing with five, but he did limit the Sox to seven hits, including five singles. The Sox did not walk for the second straight game.
After scoring 11 runs Sunday against the Tigers in Detroit, the Sox had 11 in the three games against the Guardians.
Cairo said before Friday’s game that the key to rebounding after a tough series is to not change.
“We’re professionals, we’ve got professional baseball players,” Cairo said. “We’ve got to play hard. This is not over. You never know what can happen. They can go and lose 10 out of 12. They’ve got to play Tampa, they’ve got to play Texas, and you don’t know what you’re going to get with Kansas City. They’ve got a good, young team.
“We’ve just got to keep playing and play until the end.”