A year ago, intentionally walking Jose Abreu to load the bases with nobody out might not’ve yielded much, if anything, for a lagging White Sox offense.
But after the Cleveland Indians opted to give Abreu a free pass to first base in the seventh inning Saturday, the White Sox struck for five runs to propel them to a 7-3 win in front of 20,192 frozen fans at U.S. Cellular Field.
“(It) just shows the attitude, the difference,” starter Chris Sale said of this year’s White Sox. “Whatever it is, we got it.”
The White Sox entered the bottom of the seventh in need of a comeback after Sale served up a go-ahead home run to Yan Gomes in the top of the frame. Austin Jackson led off with a single, and Jimmy Rollins followed with a double to put runners on second and third.
Even with Todd Frazier looming on deck, Indians manager Terry Francona opted to walk Abreu to load the bases. While Frazier could only produce a groundout to short, he saw six pitches that were enough to bring in Jackson for the equalizing run.
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Melky Cabrera followed with an impressive at-bat, working a 3-2 count and fouling off three consecutive cutters. Indians reliever Bryan Shaw then threw what looked like a get-me-over changeup (a pitch he rarely uses anyway), which Cabrera ripped into right for a go-ahead single.
Avisail Garcia landed a haymaker of a three-run home run into the right field bullpen, setting up the White Sox relief corps for two relatively stress-free innings of work to lock down the game.
The 15 combined pitches seen by Frazier and Cabrera before Garcia’s at-bat proved critical, especially against Shaw, who throws almost exclusively cutters and sliders. On Saturday, in temperatures hovering around freezing, Shaw didn't throw a slider in the strike zone and grooved his only changeup.
Even in an 0-2 count, that put Garcia at an advantage knowing a cutter was coming.
“(The lengthy at-bats) tell you what he’s comfortable throwing and what he’s not comfortable throwing, where they’re locating, where they’re pitching certain guys,” manager Robin Ventura said. “For (Garcia) it was more just being able to witness it and you’re sitting there watching it and seeing it out of his hand a little more.”
In 2015, White Sox cleanup hitters combined for a .735 OPS, which certainly was not ideal for the biggest run-producing spot in the lineup. But the club’s No. 5 hitters were far worse, with a .617 combined OPS. The lack of production from those two spots hamstrung the lineup, which scored the fewest runs of any American League club (622).
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The White Sox offense, though, no longer has to be Abreu or bust. Even just having competitive at-bats behind Abreu is a breath of fresh air compared to last year’s noxious offense, which was shut out 12 times and frequently failed to battle back from the kind of late-game deficits it faced today.
“It’s a little more veteran lineup that doesn’t react to you being down or giving up a lead,” Ventura said. “They continue to grind through it. I think it’s not a comfort level, but I think there’s not a panic either, because you’re able to come back.”
The White Sox aren’t making any grand predictions for how the season’s first six games have gone. But for a team that played listless baseball right out of the gate a year ago, there is a noticeable shift in the talk emanating from 35th and Shields.
“The whole, ‘there’s a lot of baseball left,’ that gets old after a while,” Sale said. “That being said, there is a lot of baseball left and hopefully we keep doing what we’ve been doing.”