Chicago White Sox clinch AL Central title, second straight playoff appearance

CLEVELAND -- The Chicago White Sox clinched the American League Central title by virtue of a 7-2 victory over the second-place Cleveland Indians on Thursday.

The celebration on the field was subdued, in part, because the teams had Game 2 of their doubleheader to play but also because the White Sox have much bigger goals in mind. They made the postseason as a wild card team in 2020, but lost in the first round.

"Last year left a sour taste in our mouth so it was on us to get back," shortstop Tim Anderson said on the field after the game. "And we did."

Chicago lost to the Oakland Athletics in the first round but then went out and signed former A's closer Liam Hendriks to a multiyear deal and traded for starter Lance Lynn, fortifying an already talented team.

"This is the reason I came here," Hendriks said. "A chance to win a division and a chance to go to the playoffs. We're fulfilling that and now we have a chance to win a ring."

It's the sixth division championship for the White Sox and first since 2008. They are the first MLB team to clinch a division this season and are making their first back-to-back postseason appearances in franchise history.

"The whole thing for me is Fantasy Island," manager Tony La Russa said. "Coming back like this. We all know the truth. The first three jobs, the clubs were struggling when I took over. Managers don't walk into a situation like this, with a team so ready to win. So I'm very, very fortunate."

La Russa, 76, previously managed the White Sox from 1979 until 1986 before stops in Oakland and St. Louis, where he won a combined three World Series and made it to the Hall of Fame. He came out of retirement last winter, after a decade absence, to take over the team he first managed 42 years ago -- a move some were critical of.

"I absolutely felt he was the best guy for the job," White Sox owner Jerry Reinsdorf said. "I never had any doubt in my mind. It wasn't like I hadn't seen him for 10 years. I saw him, I talked to him. I knew what he had left. What I wanted was somebody that I felt could really handle the pitchers and can relate to the players and I knew Tony could do it."

His players agreed.

"He came in and allowed us to be ourselves," Anderson said. "He always says players first. He allowed us to play the game the way we would want to and allowed us to have some fun."

The decisive win came on the strength of four home runs, including two by the White Sox All-Star shortstop in the first two innings of the game. Outfielders Eloy Jimenez and Luis Robert had back-to-back home runs in the second inning.

"The way I look at it, it's a special opportunity that this team has earned over six months," La Russa said before the game.

The White Sox are likely to face the Houston Astros in the ALDS next month. Despite the division title, the White Sox haven't been as strong in the second half, compiling a 32-32 after losing Game 2 on Thursday night.

The theme of the White Sox's season has been overcoming injuries. They lost Jimenez, Robert and second baseman Nick Madrigal for lengthy periods of time, while Anderson has been hampered by leg injuries throughout the second half.

Rookies and role players such as Andrew Vaughn, Gavin Sheets and Leury Garcia stepped in without missing a beat.

"There were the early gut punches of losing Eloy and Luis," general manager Rick Hahn stated. "Fairly shortly after we lost Luis, we were able to win more than we lost and there became this attitude that we still have the horses to do it."

The White Sox propelled themselves into first place in May behind the strength of their starting staff. All-Stars Lynn and Carlos Rodon led a rotation that had the second-best ERA in the American League entering Thursday. Chicago augmented its bullpen at the trade deadline with the addition of All-Star reliever Craig Kimbrel, though he has struggled at times in a White Sox uniform.

A 19-10 May record changed the trajectory of the AL central.

Reigning AL MVP Jose Abreu once again has been a force at the plate, driving in 113 runs as he attempts to lead the league in RBIs for the third straight season. He trails the Kansas City Royals' Salvador Perez by two in the category. La Russa will be going to the postseason for the 15th time in a 35-year managerial career. The White Sox won the AL West by 20 games under La Russa in 1983.

"When everything is clicking we've shown to be a pretty good ball club," Anderson said. "We showed it today."

Reinsdorf hopes the team will show more of it in the coming weeks.

"It's always a great feeling when you win something," he said. "But this is only a step on our way to what we hope is a bigger prize."