On the eve of the White Sox’s first playoff game in 12 years, manager Rick Renteria sent three different lineups out to his players.
“I always let the players know why there are (different) lineups and who are the options so that none of them are caught off guard,” Renteria said.
The manager doesn’t always have three different lineups, but he didn’t know if left fielder Eloy Jiménez was going to be able to play in Tuesday’s Wild Card series opener against the Athletics in Oakland.
Option 1 was that Jiménez played left field. Option 2 was that he was limited to designated hitter duties. Option 3 was that he couldn’t play. Thus, the three possible lineups.
“Old school times, you wouldn't know what you were doing until you came to the ballpark,” Renteria said. “I try to be a little more proactive and give guys a heads up so they can get some rest, be ready.”
Caught in the juggling act was right-handed outfielder Adam Engel, who already figured to be in the mix for the Game 1 with the A’s starting a left-handed pitcher. But switch-hitting outfielder Leury García was also an option after getting activated off the injured list Tuesday morning. When Engel arrived at the ballpark Tuesday morning, he didn’t know where he’d be in the lineup.
“Honestly, I didn't pay too much attention to where I was at,” he said. “I was just getting myself ready to have at-bats and once the final lineup came out, it was just another game.”
Engel caught himself mid-sentence.
“Obviously I know it's the playoffs, but I'm just trying to keep it to as close to what a normal at-bat would be like no matter where I'm at in the lineup,” he said. “Yesterday I was getting reads in left field and right field just trying to not get surprised by anything out here.”
As it turned out, Jiménez couldn’t play. Both García (left field) and Engel (right field) made it into the lineup, and Engel became the spark for the offense, hitting a solo home run in the second inning in his first ever playoff at-bat. He added a double in the fourth inning and the White Sox won Game 1, 4-1.
“Incredible,” Engel said. “Pregame, you're trying to envision your at-bats and kind of put yourself in the box and you're trying to envision success up there and then when it actually happens it's just such a cool feeling.”
Adam Engel becoming the first White Sox player to hit a home run this postseason was certainly an upset, but him playing a major role in a big win should not have been a surprise if you’ve been paying attention. Just last week in Cleveland, Engel hit a huge RBI triple to give the White Sox a lead in extra innings that the bullpen did not hold onto. In 36 games this season, Engel slashed .295/.333/.477, going from an afterthought in the White Sox rebuild to a key piece on a contending team.
“I've been with Adam Engel since he got here,” shortstop Tim Anderson said. “Just to see the work that he's been doing and to see what kind of hitter he's turned himself into -- he started the offense today and I couldn't be happier and proud of the way he's performing.”
On May 5, 2019, at the age of 27, Engel was optioned to Triple-A Charlotte. He was hitting just .212 over 26 games and it was fair to wonder if he’d ever be back in Chicago. At that point in his career, Engel had established himself as a plus-outfielder and speedy baserunner, but his offense simply wasn’t Major League caliber, despite frequently teasing the team with good numbers in spring training.
But that extended trip to Charlotte changed everything.
“I remember having conversations with (hitting coach) Frank Menechino last year in Triple-A,” Engel said. “Obviously, no one wants to get sent down, but he was like, 'Hey you know man, sometimes something like this has to happen to kind of catapult you into the player you can ultimately be.’
“At the time, obviously you want that to happen, but you're still in Triple-A ... I learned a lot down there, especially from him, and I learned a lot about myself as an offensive player, so if I don't get sent down last year, I don't know if I'm where I'm at today.”
Most likely, he would not have been hitting a key home run for the White Sox in a playoff game.
“Especially in the playoffs, the first team that scores is able to maybe take a deep breath a little bit there, so I was happy to be able to be that guy today,” he said.
Engel’s offensive emergence actually began in August of 2019 after returning to Chicago. He posted a .784 OPS in 34 games after Aug. 22 of last season and hit four home runs in the month of September. That served as a sneak peek of what was to come in 2020, as the OPS rose to .811 over 36 games.
But Engel still isn’t a full-time player. He always knew Luis Robert was coming for his spot in centerfield, but the team’s acquisition of right fielder Nomar Mazara pushed him to the bench at the start of the abbreviated 2020 season. Mazara struggled though and wasn’t used much against left-handed pitching, which created more opportunity for Engel, who kept taking advantage.
Tuesday’s playoff game was no exception. Against A’s left-hander Jesus Luzardo, Renteria opted for both Engel and García in the lineup and Engel delivered.
“Huge spark,” Renteria said. “Adam is always ready.”
Engel is thriving in his role as a Swiss Army Knife for Renteria, so much so that it makes you wonder if he could be an everyday player again for the White Sox in the future. His defense and speed is so good that if he could just hit .250 with a .320 on-base percentage, he would be a valuable everyday player. This year, he exceeded those numbers, albeit as more of a platoon player in a shorter season.
Engel turns 29 in December, which gives you pause, but his bat isn’t showing any signs of slumping. Can he be more than a fourth outfielder on a playoff team? He basically already is, even if he technically isn’t an every day player.
“Obviously as a competitor everyone wants to be in the lineup every day. I think that's what makes big leaguers, big leaguers,” Engel said.
Jimenéz’s status for Game 2 is still up in the air, but regardless, you can certainly make the case that Engel should still be in the lineup in right field over Mazara, even with right-hander Chris Bassitt getting the start for Oakland.
“If I'm not in the lineup, I'm going to do everything I can to be ready to either pinch hit or come in for defense or run or whatever the case may be,” Engel said. “My job is just to be ready for whatever they have me set to do.”
That is Engel’s job right now. And he’s been very, very good at it.