By sending unknown rookie Hunter Gaddis to the mound Thursday in a makeup game at Progressive Field, the Cleveland Guardians sent a message to the Chicago White Sox:
We are not worried about you.
What other way is there to look at the decision by Guardians manager Terry Francona to bypass Tristan McKenzie for Gaddis?
Francona told Cleveland reporters the decision reflected the tough upcoming schedule and the absence of injured starters Aaron Civale and Zach Plesac and blah, blah, blah.
But if the Guardians viewed Thursday’s game as important to their chances of winning the American League Central, they would’ve started McKenzie, who has a 2.12 ERA over his last 13 starts, including two against the Sox, and was on his regular rest.
Gaddis served up five home runs in four innings in an 8-2 loss to the Sox, tying a franchise record for home runs allowed and allowing the Sox to creep to within three games of first place instead of falling five back.
Francona had the hammer and refused to use it. The Sox should send him a bottle of wine and a nice note saying: “‘Tanks’ for everything, Tito. See you next week.”
Francona may be a Hall of Fame manager and no doubt is having one of his best seasons yet with a young and unheralded team. But blowing off a game that could’ve been the nail in the Sox coffin was puzzling.
Francona had to know runs would be hard to come by with Lance Lynn pitching, yet he still turned to Gaddis, who was making his second big-league start after giving up eight runs in 3⅓ innings against the Houston Astros.
Even when it became obvious Gaddis had nothing, Francona left him in to start the fifth to save the bullpen. Only after an Elvis Andrus homer, a Yoán Moncada double and a run-scoring single by José Abreu did Francona turn to his pen, trailing 7-1.
Maybe he knows something about the White Sox we don’t. Maybe there’s a good reason he doesn’t fear them enough to play Thursday’s game as if it mattered. Maybe saving McKenzie for the Minnesota Twins on Friday was the best call. Or maybe starting Gaddis will turn out to be a major miscalculation that burns the Guardians in the long run.
If you’re a White Sox fan, you have to feel better about next week’s three-game series with the Guardians at Guaranteed Rate Field. The long-awaited power surge was back, and if the Sox handle the lowly Tigers this weekend in Detroit, they should go into the series opener Tuesday no worse than three games back, with Dylan Cease, Lynn and Lucas Giolito starting.
By then we should have an answer to whether the Sox plan on bringing back manager Tony La Russa to the dugout following his heart-related hiatus. The longer the Sox go without making a decision, which supposedly remains in the hands of the doctors, the more support acting manager Miguel Cairo gets from his bosses.
Cairo entered the Sox managerial vortex visibly nervous when handling media questions after the Aug. 30 loss to the Kansas City Royals. They’ve since gone 11-4, and Cairo now he looks as if he’s been doing this his whole life. He’s not a great sound bite like La Russa, but his mantra of taking care of today and worrying about tomorrow tomorrow resonates for a team that spent too much of the season believing it was only a matter of time before they turned things around.
Closer Liam Hendriks said Cairo’s message is basically the same as La Russa’s, but the players are now listening.
“It’s like when your dad tells you something to do, sometimes you don’t always listen and then your weird uncle tells you the exact same thing and all the sudden it clicks,” Hendriks said.
I’ll leave it to others to debate which one would be the weird uncle in this scenario.
Nevertheless, Cairo has left an impression. Now it’s now up to the players to ignore the first five months and perform the way they are supposed to.
This could be a life-defining moment for Cairo, who may be auditioning for 2023. If La Russa does not return this season, it’s hard to see him coming back in ‘23 after all that has happened. The Sox do have to sell tickets next year.
Cairo is a strong communicator, and makes it a point to talk to his players individually or in small groups. Wednesday morning it was Joe Kelly and Jake Diekman together on the field, then Johnny Cueto in the dugout. He lets his players know where he is coming from, and that’s something any employee can appreciate.
Cairo, 48, said Wednesday he didn’t ever think of being a manager until “later on” in his playing career.
“When I played every day, I was concentrating on being the best second baseman,” he said. “When I became a utility player, it was being the best utility player. Later on, when I was getting older, I really wanted to learn what was going on in the (front) office because there were a lot of moves.”
Former Cincinnati Reds general manager Walt Jocketty, a close friend and longtime colleague of La Russa, gave Cairo a chance as a special assistant from 2013-17. Cairo then spent three seasons as minor-league infield coordinator with the New York Yankees, before La Russa called in 2020 and asked him to be his bench coach.
“And you cannot pass on that,” Cairo said. “That was Tony La Russa, Hall of Famer, and that’s the best one to learn from.”
The manager no one expected to be there is now in charge of a Sox team that can salvage its season with one last playoff push. The well-respected manager of the Guardians gave them an opening.
We’ll soon find out if the Sox received the message.