HOUSTON — Sometimes, baseball doesn’t play out as one would envision.
Take the White Sox 7-0 victory over the Astros Saturday afternoon at Minute Maid Park, where the odds seemed to be stacked against the South Siders before they even took the field.
Yes, the White Sox (31-32) had been hitting .282 as a team over their last 26 games, but they entered the middle game of the series without shortstop Tim Anderson, catcher Yasmani Grandal, left fielder Eloy Jiménez and third baseman Yoán Moncada in their lineup. Moncada was the only new injury of the group, sidelined by right hamstring soreness suffered while running out a grounder Friday, but they were decidedly short-handed going against Astros ace Justin Verlander.
Verlander carried a 7-2 mark with a 2.32 ERA and 107 strikeouts in his last 85 1/3 innings and 13 starts against the White Sox entering Saturday, having yielded two runs or less 12 times in those 13.
In the third and fourth innings, the White Sox topped that total by pouncing for seven runs on eight hits. It was an important answer to the Astros’ 10-run sixth inning during a 13-3 Fridays and guaranteed the White Sox a winning road trip with four wins in their last five games in Detroit and Houston.
“I’m telling you, it’s a very resilient, tough-minded, tough-heart, tough-guts club,” White Sox manager Tony La Russa said. “The way we’ve hung in there, that’s why they have my total respect and admiration.
“You start talking about what’s an example? Today. They put that game [on Friday] behind us. [The score] it was just 3-3 and boom, we are out of it. It’s ugly. So we got what it takes, and now we just have to score more runs than the other club enough times to get into contention.”
Verlander (8-3) exited his abbreviated 3 2/3-inning start with a 2.30 ERA, not to mention ranking sixth in the American League with 81 strikeouts. But he struck out just three on Saturday, recording eight swings and misses over his 81 pitches — and just two on his four-seam fastballs, which he threw 46 times.
White Sox hitters were prepared for the right-hander, who moved into 16th place on the all-time strikeouts list, as shown by their opposite-field targets in the third inning. La Russa described it more as a focus of working left-center to right-center.
Seby Zavala began the third-inning rally with a two-strike single to left, and Danny Mendick and Andrew Vaughn punched singles to right against the shift to load the bases with one out. Luis Robert singled to right to score the first two runs of the game, and José Abreu followed by doubling home two on a grounder pulled just fair down the left-field line. Every White Sox starter but Jake Burger and AJ Pollock had at least one hit off Verlander.
“We know you are going to have to stay on the ball, because he’s a Hall of Famer to me,” said La Russa of facing Verlander. “So I thought it was a very intelligent approach.”
“My approach was the same as always,” said Robert, who finished with three hits and four RBIs, through interpreter Billy Russo. “I just tried to make good contact and put the ball in play.”
All of this offense supported an absolute gem thrown by Johnny Cueto, who allowed a bloop single to Jose Altuve to open the first and nothing more until Alex Bregman’s leadoff infield single in the seventh, finishing with seven scoreless innings for his first White Sox win. Having Cueto on the mound is anything but a cause for concern, but the team simply has not scored for him with three runs being the highest output prior to Saturday.
That death of offense changed against one of baseball’s best.
“Johnny Cueto can pitch,” Houston manager Dusty Baker said. “I had him as a kid when he was pitching 96-97 [mph], and he is pitching the same way. He has real good control, and he has a number of pitches. I guess he has been watching some [Luis] Tiant film, because he was like a mini-Tiant today.”
Let’s also not forget the White Sox seven-game losing streak at Minute Maid, including two 2021 playoff losses, during which they had been outscored, 55-16. None of those intangibles or particulars mattered Saturday, when the White Sox played one of their best overall games this season.
Sometimes, baseball just doesn’t follow the expected path.
“Last night was a bad game for us,” said Cueto. “But I always say, you need to keep your head up and be optimistic and come back the next day and try to do your job.”