‘Pressing’: Nerves leading to losses, White Sox need to find way to enjoy the game again, Grifol says

CHICAGO — The Chicago White Sox are off to their worst start in franchise history, and as the losses pile up, the team continues to look for answers to get “off the schneid.”

According to manager Pedro Grifol, those answers may be simple, yet cerebral, ones.

In the home dugout at Guaranteed Rate Field on Sunday, Grifol put the White Sox’s season into perspective.

“I just think guys are pressing,” Grifol said before Chicago’s game against the Cincinnati Reds. “They really care. They want to turn this around. … They want to be a part of the solution and a part of the turnaround.”

Sunday’s game ended with an 11-4 loss to complete a dispiriting three-game sweep by the Reds in which they outscored the White Sox, 27-5.

On Monday, Grifol organized a team meeting ahead of its game against the Kansas City Royals, but he wouldn’t comment on the outcome, instead saying, “It was just something I felt we needed to get together and discuss.”

That game ended in a 2-0 loss, the sixth time the White Sox have been shut out already this season.

Between injuries to the core of their lineup, a general lack of depth and talent on the roster and mental mistakes made on the field, the overall product has left much to be desired from the franchise’s rather apathetic fanbase.

At 2-14 to begin the year, Chicago was hitting .196 with a Major League Baseball-worst eight home runs — the only team still in single digits — heading into its Tuesday contest against the Royals.

The only team with a lower batting average than the White Sox (and by virtue of direct correlation, hits) was the Minnesota Twins, who were batting .194 with two fewer total base knocks than the South Siders (99-97) before Tuesday.

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Defensively, the South Siders were also bottom-10 in baseball in a number of categories, including total errors (12, tied for seventh-worst), fielding percentage (.979, fifth-worst) and putouts (418, fourth-worst).

“We have nine guys thinking about their individual performance, we’re not doing anything,” Grifol said. “So, our responsibility and our efforts are solely concerned on making sure that we play team baseball and making sure that we have good at-bats, and it’s not there for us.”

According to Grifol, the team’s lack of hitting has a two-fold effect of guys putting pressure on themselves to perform at the plate and on the mound, whether they’re an everyday player in the field, a starting pitcher, or a reliever coming out of the bullpen.

“On the pitching end, I just think (the hitters) are also putting a lot of pressure on them, because they feel like they’ve got to be perfect,” Grifol said. “When we’re not scoring that many runs, that’s a conversation that we have, just go out there and do your thing.

“Where we get into trouble is a leadoff triple and thinking that we’re going to lose the game if that guy scores.”

As opposed to the team’s hitting and defense, the pitching staff has been a mixed bag, with a few silver linings.

Jordan Leasure and John Brebbia both have yet to give up a run across 10 combined appearances.

Nick Nastrini made an inspired MLB debut on Monday, retiring 11 straight batters to begin his first-ever major-league start before he finished with a final line of five innings pitched and two earned runs on three hits, two walks and five strikeouts.

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Michael Kopech, meanwhile, has made a fruitful transition from starter to back-end reliever, finishing five games and notching two saves while putting together a 1.93 ERA in seven games.

And Garrett Crochet has exhibited the ability to be dominant doing the inverse of Kopech, undergoing the conversion from reliever to starting pitcher.

Crochet is 1-2 with a 3.57 ERA across four starts, with a major-league-leading 31 strikeouts.

Perhaps even more impressive, Crochet is one of three MLB pitchers since 1901 to record 30-plus strikeouts with four or fewer walks over their first four career starts. The other two? Masahiro Tanaka for the New York Yankees in 2015 (35 Ks/2 BBs) and Felix Hernandez for the Seattle Mariners in 2005 (30 Ks/4 BBs).

But even being tops in the majors in strikeouts and in the rarified company of Tanaka and Hernandez, Crochet’s postgame presser on Saturday gave credence to Grifol’s assessment.

Fifth pitches into his start, which the Sox went on to lose 5-0, Crochet said he started feeling the pressure to go deeper into the game, in the name of saving his fellow pitchers, as soon as his pitch count began to rise.

“It kind of became a little bit bigger than me,” Crochet said. “I was trying to save the bullpen as much as I could. I was hoping to get through five, but the pitch count climbed a little higher than we were comfortable with, so that’s what happened.”

Sunday starter Michael Soroka echoed similar sentiments to Crochet.

“I think most of us that are in a rut are trying too hard to get to the other side of it,” Soroka said. “It’s a tough game that way. It’s not a game that you can out-hustle someone during the game on the mound or in the box.

“You kind of have to find that happy zone of being relaxed and letting your stuff play.”

While Soroka piggy-backed off Crochet’s comments in a way, the two starting pitchers were near the same page when it came to managing the mental side of pitching and finding ways they need to improve.

“I chalk that up to more of just not being as competitive in the zone as I have been. I feel like I was focusing too much on hitting spots and not enough on throwing strikes,” Crochet said on the second inning of his start Saturday. “… Just timidness, shying away from contact and that’s not who I am.

“I’m going to go out there, and for the most part, I’m going to throw a fastball down the middle and see if you can hit it today. It’s just not what I did.”

Crochet also lamented not incorporating his changeup as much as he had done in previous starts. He talked about how it’s a “grip-it-and-rip-it” pitch that helps get his fastball right when he’s not attacking the strike zone to his normal standards.

In the case of Soroka, he’s focused on trying to dial back overthinking and putting pressure on himself to perform. Once that begins to happen, he said he should start to get closer to the version of himself that was a National League All-Star with the Atlanta Braves in 2019 and an Opening Day starter in 2020.

“It’s easier said than done, but that needs to be an adjustment that I make going into the next game,” Soroka said about needing to let his stuff play. “I think back to the times I did have (my) most success, the game felt the easiest. … Everything wasn’t a struggle, and I wasn’t treating every hitter like ’04 Barry Bonds.”

Rampant negativity and poor performance aside, Grifol also remains adamant the club will turn things around. And along the way, the enjoyment of playing baseball should return once the White Sox get past the struggles they are in.

“Just go out there and have some fun,” Grifol said. “You can’t let the pressures of this game take away the joy of it, because if you do, you’re going to get caught up in a bad situation.”

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