Two pitches. Two runs.
The Chicago White Sox lost their third straight Monday night, getting a crash course in how little it takes to make the difference in head-to-head matchups against other American League contenders.
The Toronto Blue Jays might end up a playoff club, chasing several teams in both the AL East and AL wild card standings. But they're a good team, with a young, star-studded roster that could position them as intraleague rivals to the White Sox in the coming years. And that makes the four-game series underway north of the border just as revelatory about the White Sox and their 2021 championship chances as the three that came before it, against the New York Yankees, Oakland Athletics and Tampa Bay Rays.
Unfortunately for the White Sox, their first game against the Blue Jays looked much like their last two games against the Rays, at least from an offensive perspective, held to one run on five singles in another quiet night for the offense.
But the pitching kept it close, done in on literally two pitches.
Lance Lynn allowed just one run in his seven innings of work, continuing his Cy Young-caliber season by lowering his league-leading ERA to 2.20. But with two outs and a runner on second in the bottom of the sixth, he made what he called "a stupid mental mistake," costing the White Sox their just-earned one-run lead.
The first three pitches he threw to MVP candidate Vladimir Guerrero Jr. were balls, and the fourth was supposed to be, too. But the ol' unintentional intentional walk didn't materialize on the fourth pitch of the sequence, and Guerrero hit a ball in the zone for an RBI single to tie the game.
If manager Tony La Russa limiting the discussion of the pitch to "no comment" hadn't already indicated, that was not how things were supposed to go. Lynn was more verbose in his explanation.
"It was stupid, there's no other way to say it," he said. "I told Tony that when I got in, that was all on me. I was trying to throw a ball, and it ran back over the plate. When you go back and look at it, it's not in a terrible location, but you don't throw a 3-0 strike. There was never any intention to throw a strike.
"I wanted to go up and away and be done with the at-bat and get on to the next guy. And I threw it right where he seemed to be looking for it. You definitely don't want to do that there. It was not the idea, not the play, not what I was intending to do.
"If you don't make a stupid mental mistake, you could be looking at seven innings of no runs. You still don't know what's going to happen after you walk the guy, but you can't let Vladdy beat you there on a 3-0 pitch, no matter what."
Of course, more often than not, if Lynn dominates the way he did Monday and shuts down a capable offense to the tune of one run over seven innings, the White Sox are going to win. But they were given merely a chance to win this day, what with the way the offense struggled in its third straight game without Tim Anderson, rested again with sore legs.
In Anderson's absence, the White Sox have mustered five runs in three days, clearly missing their "igniter" at the top of the lineup.
But indeed they had a chance to win all the way to the end, when one more pitch proved the difference between winning and losing.
It hasn't been the easiest transition from North Side to South Side for Craig Kimbrel. In his previous appearance before relieving Lynn on Monday, he was lifted before finishing off the eighth inning, La Russa beating himself up for taking Kimbrel out and unintentionally sending a message, the manager believed, of lack of confidence and disrespect.
The two patched things up before Monday's outing, but Kimbrel again found himself in a tough jam. With a runner on third and two outs in a tie game, he learned from Lynn's mistake and intentionally walked Guerrero. He followed that up by getting two strikes on Teoscar Hernández, only to uncork a wild pitch that Seby Zavala had no chance at wrangling, allowing the go-ahead run to come home from third.
That was the ballgame, the White Sox going 1-2-3 in the top of the ninth and losing 2-1.
It was another sour moment for Kimbrel, whose ERA since joining the White Sox is now up to a gruesome 5.79. At least one has scored in six of his 10 appearances.
Now, 10 games does not a season make, and Kimbrel's track record is pretty darn impressive, certainly strong enough that a bumpy start with his new team should not necessarily spell doom for the important innings he'll need to throw in September and October.
But all the questions surrounding whether one of the game's all-time great closers could turn into an effective setup man overnight are not going anywhere. At least outside the clubhouse.
"I look at his stuff. It's nasty," La Russa said. "He hasn't pitched as regularly as he was when he was saving, for whatever reason. As long as he's healthy, I look at what he's throwing up there, we're really fortunate to have him. ... I like what I see a lot."
"We've got a lot of confidence in him," Lynn said. "Whenever you come to a new team in the middle of the season, you're trying to just find your way. It's been kind of a weird transition, coming over from the trade deadline. But you're looking at it, he's throwing the ball well. He's had some weird things happen. And it's just one of those things, once we get the things rolling that we need to get rolling and guys are getting into more of a flow of how things are going to be, everything's going to run smoothly."
And so Monday was a tale of two pitches.
The White Sox didn't need much of a refresher on how small the margin of error is when trying to play championship baseball. They just lived it in St. Petersburg. They had a weekend prior against the Yankees in Iowa and on the South Side.
But they saw it again in Toronto.
A missed intentional ball here, a wild pitch there, and they were losers. Game-changing plays like that are going to be the story in October. The White Sox will just hope to be on the other side of them then.
This is one night in August. If it happens in October, something so minimal could be the difference between playing for a trophy and going home.