White Sox fans felt it.
So did the White Sox.
Monday night brought playoff-style baseball to the South Side for the first time in a long time. It wasn’t actually the playoffs, of course, as the postseason will start at its normally scheduled time. But for the first time since the start of their rebuilding project four years ago, the White Sox are playing meaningful baseball in September. And the playoff feel has returned to Guaranteed Rate Field.
RELATED: Tim Anderson: White Sox AL-best record ‘putting no trophies in our pocket’
“It feels like you are living and dying on every pitch,” outfielder Adam Engel said after the game. “You have a lot of emotion going with every pitch.
“A lot of guys say at the end of a playoff game, everybody is mentally and emotionally exhausted. Tonight wasn’t the real thing, per se, but it felt pretty similar to that.”
The White Sox not only got to feel the intensity of playoff-style baseball Monday night, they found out what it takes to win that kind of game, with an entertaining 3-1 victory. As the pitching staff tap danced out of one jam after another, the bases peppered with Minnesota Twins all night long, the White Sox powerful offense was given an opportunity to deliver some late-inning heroics. And that powerful lineup won the game on a chopped grounder through a drawn-in infield.
It might as well have been Kirk Gibson’s walk-off homer in the World Series, though, for how nuts the White Sox dugout went when Engel squared to bunt, pulled back and hacked a base hit right up the middle, bringing Yoán Moncada home from second base for the tie-breaking tally.
Before that, it was a whole bunch of hits, a whole bunch of walks and a whole bunch of nothing crossing home plate, a 1-all tie all the offenses could scratch across. But the score knotted for so long and the bases packed with scoring chances only added to the intensity of the game. One slip up, and that could be it. Instead, the White Sox pitching staff — Dylan Cease and a quartet of relievers — left 14 Twins on base and even got MVP candidate Nelson Cruz to strand the bases loaded twice.
For those of you who spent the evening on the edges of your seats at home, there were some equally stressed-out observers in the ballpark, too. White Sox fans haven’t had a taste of actual playoff baseball in more than a decade. A lot of the White Sox players have never played meaningful games in September or October.
But everyone got to live that Monday night.
“That game was a great preview of what it would be like,” Cease said. “Every pitch felt important, every play felt important. It was a really fun game to watch and be a part of.”
And of course, the opponent matters. Big time.
The White Sox came into Monday night’s game with the best record in the American League and a one-game edge on the Twins in the AL Central standings. And the Twins came in red hot, too, the winners of 10 of their last 12. While the White Sox sure would love to win the division crown — even as some downplay the importance of such a feat with the expanded playoff field — there was an even bigger thing staring them in the face: They came into Monday with a 7-11 record against winning teams.
Whether they can win the division or not certainly hinges on winning against the Twins. But perhaps more importantly, so does proving themselves capable of making noise come October.
Well, this was a heck of a way to start answering those questions. Obviously, it doesn’t cure all their ills against good teams. But that’s what this four-game set is for. The Twins are not only a good team, a hot team and a playoff-caliber team. They’re the reigning Central champs.
To be the best, you’ve got to be the best, as they say.
“It’s huge because here in the recent history, the way we’ve fared against the Twins, they kind of seem like the big, bad Twins,” said relief pitcher Evan Marshall, who struck out Cruz with the bases loaded in the sixth. “But we’re killing the ball right now, and I think they have to be at least a little intimidated looking across, with the lineup we’re rolling out there.
“Everybody knows this is playoff baseball basically when we’re going up against the Twins late in September. Tonight was huge. You can’t put enough emphasis on starting this series off with a win.”
As Rick Hahn has made clear on many occasions, this rebuilding project is a long-term endeavor. While fans will obviously fixate on winning in the here and now — as will the players, by the way ― nights like Monday are important not just to set these White Sox up for the rest of the 2020 regular season and the playoffs that follow, but for the hoped-for years of playoff-style baseball to come.
So many of these youngsters haven’t been in this sort of environment before, haven’t experienced the intensity of high-stakes September baseball.
Well, they sure are getting a taste of it now. And there are three more nights of it coming against these Twins.
“Playing these games late in the season against another playoff team, I think you just essentially have to get that feeling of what playoff baseball is going to be like,” Engel said. “We have a young team, and we have a lot of guys who have the experience, but we have a lot of young players who have never played in playoffs before, myself included.
“I think if we can play some really good baseball over the next three days, I think that will help our confidence going into the playoffs.”