The Chicago White Sox entered the season expected to contend for a World Series berth after a decade of teams that vacillated from underachieving to outright tanking. The Sox’s lineup is loaded with talent up-and-down the roster, but the start of the season has been a nightmare in just about every way possible.
Eloy Jimenez, the team’s young slugger in left field, tore his pectoral muscle on foolish defensive play in spring training that will sideline him for 4-5 months. Luis Robert, the team’s 23-year-old five-tool centerfielder, then suffered a hip flexor strain that will keep him out 3-4 months. The White Sox have also had to overcome Tony La Russa, the Hall of Fame manager handpicked by owner Jerry Reinsdorf at the start of the season despite vocal opposition from the fanbase.
As the Sox took on the Cincinnati Reds in the second game of their series on Wednesday, it was La Russa’s questionable managerial decisions that helped the Reds win, 1-0.
Chicago’s lineup managed only two hits off Reds pitching all afternoon, but Sox pitchers Dallas Keuchel and Michael Kopech were equally electric to help the game reach extra innings in a scoreless tie. That’s when La Russa made himself the main character of the game.
To escape the bottom of the ninth inning, La Russa brought in closer Liam Hendriks on a double switch. Since the two teams were playing in Cincinnati — a National League park — there was no designated hitter. Hendriks was inserted into the fifth spot in the batting order in place of Andrew Vaughn, who made the last out in the top of the inning.
Under health and safety protocols this season, just like last year, extra innings begin with a runner on second base. Here’s what the rule says directly from the 2021 MLB operations manual:
The runner placed on second base at the start of each half-inning shall be the player (or a substitute for such player) in the batting order immediately preceding that half-inning’s leadoff hitter. By way of example, if the number five hitter in the batting order is due to lead off the tenth inning, the number four player in the batting order (or a pinch-runner for such player) shall begin the inning on second base. However, if the player in the batting order immediately preceding that half-inning’s leadoff hitter is the pitcher, the runner placed on second base at the start of that half-inning may be the player preceding the pitcher in the batting order. Any runner or batter removed from the game for a substitute shall be ineligible to return to the game, as is the case in all circumstances under the OBR (official baseball rules).
Since Hendriks was in the batting order spot of the player who made the last out of the previous inning, that’s why La Russa put him on second base to start the 10th inning. But since Hendriks is a pitcher, the White Sox could have used the preceding player in the batting order instead to run, who would have been Jose Abreu.
This was news to La Russa.
Tony La Russa did not know that he could have used Jose Abreu at second base as the free runner instead of closer Liam Hendriks. Was informed of an amendment to rule by @JRFegan. "I'm guessing you know the rules better. Now I know," he said.— Daryl Van Schouwen (@CST_soxvan) May 5, 2021
This is what’s on https://t.co/YLJsKuHKXZ’s site about the extra-runner rule. La Russa said they weren’t aware and thought it had to be the previous batter no matter what. Said they wanted García to steal second, rather than it being his own call pic.twitter.com/B2U9qXZkjq— James Fegan (@JRFegan) May 5, 2021
Reds manager David Bell made it clear he knew the rule in the post-game press conference.
David Bell said he knew the rule, "the league made it really clear that it was going to be a new rule in spring training"— C. Trent Rosecrans (@ctrent) May 5, 2021
Later in the top of the 10th, La Russa then decided not to pinch hit for light-hitting outfielder Billy Hamilton at the plate when his team had runners on the corners and one out while trailing by one run. Leury Garcia tried to steal second and was thrown out. Hamilton then struck out, and the Reds would add one run in the bottom of the frame to win the game.
The Sox have not looked like a well coached team so far this year. La Russa also left in ace Lucas Giolito when he clearly gassed in a late April game they ended up losing. The lineups have often been questionable throughout the season. There have already been whispers of discontent in the locker room.
The Sox are currently 16-13 on the season, which is a solid mark given all the injuries. The issue here is that the hiring of La Russa was widely panned when it happened, and he hasn’t instilled confidence that he was the right man for the job at any point this season. A baseball manager may not have a huge impact on his team’s overall performance, but La Russa still feels like a hurdle the Sox have to clear to reach their goals.
If La Russa continues looking like a poor choice for Sox manager, just know this isn’t second guessing. People around the MLB and fans of the team saw this coming a mile away.