The White Sox wanted meaningful, playoff-style baseball in the month of September.
Well, they’re getting it.
The team’s most important series of the season to date has lived up to the billing through its first two games. After the White Sox erased a 4-0 deficit and used some late-inning heroics from Luis Robert to win Monday night, they were in the middle of another tense affair with the Minnesota Twins on Tuesday. This one ended in a 3-2 loss, the White Sox supercharged offense experiencing an outage after scoring a pair in the first inning.
One night without a home-run barrage isn’t anything to worry about, of course. But things are magnified for these White Sox in a way they haven’t been in years. That’s the way it goes when you climb out of rebuilding mode and firmly establish yourself as a contender, which the White Sox have done in recent weeks.
But playing meaningful baseball and winning meaningful baseball are two different things, and the latter is what the White Sox are trying to accomplish in their quest to vault into the realm of baseball’s elite.
The Twins have shown the last couple nights that they’re not going to relinquish the AL Central crown without a fight, playing a couple intense, playoff-style ballgames as the White Sox try to prove they can do what they did in racking up wins over the Detroit Tigers and Kansas City Royals against the upper echelon of the division.
“Playoff atmosphere, and that's what you ask for,” starting pitcher Dallas Keuchel said after the game. “Even in a shortened season, you ask to go to the ballpark and play a first-, second-place team.”
The White Sox are suddenly the first-place team in this scenario, back in a tie atop the standings with the Cleveland Indians after grabbing sole possession Monday night. A few exhilarating weeks marked with one grandiose achievement after another got them this far. But this is September, where everything matters, even in a season where eight AL teams will reach the playoffs.
Every sport bills itself as a game of inches, and certainly playoff-style baseball is no exception. The White Sox built a two-run lead in the first-inning, but a dropped double-play ball and a home-run robbery went a long way toward allowing the Twins to flip that score in the middle of the game.
If José Abreu hangs onto the throw from Nick Madrigal? If Edwin Encarnación ate one more pancake this morning and got that ball out of Byron Buxton’s reach in center field? If Abreu doesn’t make contact on what seemed like an “excuse me” type swing with the bases loaded and two outs in the fifth inning? Who knows what happens.
Fans always picking apart bullpen management will question Rick Renteria’s choice to leave Jimmy Cordero, who gave up the game-tying run in relief of Keuchel in the sixth, out there to face Nelson Cruz in the seventh. Cruz, who might just be the AL MVP, promptly doubled off Cordero, and after Renteria swapped in Evan Marshall, Cruz came around to score the winning run.
“Cordero’s slider was pretty good,” Renteria explained after the game. “(Cruz) ended up hitting a changeup or something, he inside-outed it a little bit. Kept him in the ballpark.
“Then we were going to go ahead and transition to Marshall. We tried to eat up as many innings as we could. Having two days of five-inning starts put us in a position where we had to try to manage the usage and keep ourselves in the ballgame, which we did.”
Those wielding the managerial microscope are unlikely to be sated by that response. Or any, for that matter. But that’s another thing that comes with meaningful baseball, which doesn’t allow much room for error.
The White Sox are finding that out, in good ways and bad, this week in Minneapolis. Monday night — which ironically featured a lot of errors — it was the clutch ability of Abreu and Robert at the plate, it was taking advantage of a dropped pop fly in right field, it was getting a solid performance from the bullpen. Tuesday night, the Twins took advantage of Abreu’s dropped ball at first base, coming up with clutch defense as much as clutch offense, getting the solid work from the relief corps.
The White Sox wanted to be in these types of games, to take a rebuilt roster into meaningful September action, into a pennant race, and compete with baseball’s best.
They’re living that future now. And that in itself is a big deal for this team.
“I think we've done a great job. I think outside of the first five, seven games (of the season), we've risen to the occasion numerous times,” Keuchel said. “Honestly, I'm very surprised at how well we've handled the pressure just being such a young team without a ton of (past) success, in terms of the win column. But as much as I'm surprised, about that aspect, I'm honestly not just because of how good our players are.
“So we're hanging in there, and that's all we can ask. It's going to come down to the wire, and I think we're ready for it. It's going to build character for our team, and hopefully we see the talent shine through.”