CLEVELAND — In a game, in a season, for a franchise, Tim Anderson sets the tone.
Thursday afternoon, the Chicago White Sox' star shortstop blasted the third pitch he saw out of Progressive Field, instantaneously writing the script as the South Siders locked up their first division championship in 13 years and the first back-to-back postseason berths in franchise history.
It's easy enough to say the game wouldn't have been a win, that the White Sox' quest for the American League Central crown could have dragged deeper into September, without Anderson's two-homer performance in Game 1 of Thursday's doubleheader. What's equally true is that it wouldn't have gotten this far without him in the first place.
This franchise wouldn't have gotten this far without him.
"We've had a lot of homegrown guys contribute over the course of this season," White Sox general manager Rick Hahn said after the team clinched Thursday. "For whatever reason, Timmy's just a little bit different, because we've all seen how far he's grown. And different, I mean, in the sense of excitement and pride that we all take in seeing what he's become, both as a player and a leader in that clubhouse.
"I told him just a few minutes ago in the clubhouse when we embraced after the victory: 'You set the tone. You did it again today.' You could tell after that second at-bat, he was basically taking the approach of, 'This is ending today.' And the rest of the team followed suit.
"We're a different team when he's in that lineup, and you saw it again today."
The 2021 White Sox have shown how badly they need Anderson, the offense going quiet during his absences in August and earlier this month, when he was shelved with persistently sore legs. He's easily identifiable as the guy who makes this team go, whether it's with his bat, his glove, his legs or his personality, an Energizer Bunny of sorts for a division champion.
But what he also is is the face of the franchise, one of baseball's most marketable players thanks to his bat flip heard 'round the world in 2019 and the entertaining displays of personality since. The White Sox used his words — when he talked in the wake of that bat-flip firestorm about baseball needing to change — when they slapped a slogan on the entire team: "change the game." They consulted him when they scored a branding win with the uber-popular "Southside" alternate uniforms. And he soared into face-of-baseball territory with his electrifying walk-off home run in the Field of Dreams game just last month.
Anderson has been a featured player throughout the team's rebuilding process. Now he's a featured player in their ascent to division champions.
And it should come as no surprise that as the White Sox look forward to what comes next, Anderson is again driving the bus.
"We all understand that this is just a start," Anderson making it known that the division title was not the only thing on the White Sox' to-do list. "We're going to celebrate this and put it behind us and keep moving, keep pushing. And hopefully we can do something special."
Something special, otherwise known as winning the World Series. Now that is what's on the White Sox' to-do list.
The team likely had a more enthusiastic celebration planned for Thursday night than the one they busted out on the field Thursday afternoon, a business-like handshake line featuring hugs and clapping, but no over-the-top hysterics. That had a lot to do with the fact they were two hours away from playing another game. But it also had something to do with avoiding a repeat of last year, when the White Sox admittedly took their foot off the gas and stumbled down the stretch to an early playoff exit.
By not treating the first step of their October journey as the most important one, they're hoping this one lasts a lot longer.
Who's at the forefront of that approach? You guessed it.
"We didn't like that taste that we got last year, so it was upon us to go out and take care of business," Anderson said. "And look where we're at now. We won the division. And we understand that it just starts here."
The tone that Anderson has set has brought the White Sox to this point. They're the champions of the AL Central. They're going back to the postseason. They've got the confidence that they can go out and win the whole thing.
They know that Thursday wasn't the pinnacle. You don't get a ring for being better than the Cleveland Indians and Detroit Tigers. Thursday was a first step toward something much, much bigger.
Not a bad tone for Anderson to set.