Around this time last year, closer Liam Hendriks and the A’s were studying the young and exciting White Sox lineup, searching for weaknesses to exploit in a three-game Wild Card Series.
“At the end of the day, that was one of the biggest lessons for this team,” Hendriks said last week, now part of the team he helped eliminate from the 2020 playoffs, “is losing last year and coming in with that experience and knowledge of how to do it. That experience of being there and the heartbreak of going home earlier than you anticipated.”
On Thursday, the White Sox will open the American League Division Series at Houston, with a chance to prove that last year’s quick exit won’t happen again.
“Last year it was a process,” outfielder Eloy Jiménez said. “First experience in the playoffs for us, and it tastes good, not going to lie. That’s why this year we came hungry. And right now, how we play, we show people that we are hungry right now.”
The White Sox are different this year in plenty of tangible ways. They hired Hall of Famer Tony La Russa as manager. They added veterans over the offseason and at the trade deadline, notably bolstering the back end of their bullpen with All-Star closers Hendriks and Craig Kimbrel, elevating their starting rotation with right-hander Lance Lynn.
As for the offense, Jiménez was hurt last year, coming back for two at-bats in Game 3 of the Wild Card Series on a sprained foot. Third baseman Yoán Moncada was still dealing with the aftereffects of COVID-19 months after he contracted the virus. This year, however, they both finished the regular season healthy.
Then, of course, there’s been individual player development and a return to the usual playoff format – instead of every team playing a best-of-three Wild Card series like in last year’s expanded playoffs, the White Sox go straight into the ALDS this year.
The X-factor for the White Sox in 2021, however, could prove to be something more abstract. Hendriks was far from the only White Sox player to point to last year’s experience, the franchise’s first playoff appearance in over a decade, as a reason this squad is built for a deep playoff run.
“It’s definitely different,” center fielder Luis Robert said of the playoff atmosphere, through team interpreter Billy Russo. “It’s higher, stronger and something you don’t feel in the regular season games.”
The A’s considered that last year as they prepared to face the White Sox.
“Generally, when you are a little bit younger, you tend to be overaggressive at the plate, especially in those first couple of playoff games,” Hendriks said. “Got a couple of swings and misses early in the count, and we were able to kind of run with it toward those last two games.”
Hendriks said the White Sox’ mix of on-base, speed and power threats made their lineup “tough to navigate.” But the A’s found a way.
The White Sox, after claiming Game 1, lost the next two straight, scrambling to piece together a bullpen day in the final contest.
“Last year, things didn’t go our way,” Robert said. “There’s nothing you can do about that. I think this year, because we had that experience and we learned from experience, things are going to be way different. We have a good chance to have a good run, and we are going to try to take advantage of it.”
There was a new feeling around the team this spring training, according to players like Leury García and Yoán Moncada, who have been around since at least the start of the rebuild (or in García’s case, long before).
"There was this confidence going back to spring training,” White Sox general manager Rick Hahn agreed. “There was a confidence, but there was no love of complacency by any stretch. People understood that we hadn't done anything yet. And quite frankly, we've only accomplished the first thing on our list of goals and that is to win the division.
“And if we don't wind up winning 11 more games this month, we will have not have accomplished everything that we felt this team is capable of doing.”
Next on the list: Win the ALDS.
To do so, the White Sox will have to win at least one game at Minute Maid Park, a place catcher Yasmani Grandal described as “pretty rowdy,” the former Dodger drawing on his experience in Houston during the 2017 World Series.
“Which I love,” he added of the rowdiness.
So, the White Sox are preparing for the playoff atmosphere to be more electric this year than last, when COVID-19 protocols maintained empty stands until later rounds.
This time, however, the stakes will be familiar to most of the White Sox roster. The urgency of each pitch will be something these players have felt before.
“Just really prepare, do our homework,” shortstop Tim Anderson said, “and the biggest thing is just enjoy the moment. Those are the moments you want to be in and a lot of focus and just have fun with it. We have fun, we’ll be the team that has the most fun, then obviously there’s a great chance that we’ll come out on top.”