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White Sox show long awaited energy in emotional walk-off win vs. Twins: ‘This is who we are’

Vinnie Duber Avatar
September 3, 2022

Let’s not go crazy. It was a walk-off fielder’s choice.

And before that, it was a walk-off hit-by-pitch.

While Miguel Cairo and Davis Martin were talking about a “playoff atmosphere” Friday night at Guaranteed Rate Field, the White Sox have a long way to go before they look like a team capable of making a deep October run.

Heck, they’ve got work to do before they can even be considered a playoff team at all.

But everything is relative, of course, and in the weak AL Central, what happened Friday night on the South Side looked rather noteworthy.

“The energy level is something we’ve been aspiring to get to,” Liam Hendriks told CHGO after a wild 4-3 win for the White Sox over the division-rival Twins. “It’s just getting that jokingness back and being able to laugh and move around and be loud and be obnoxious.

“It played out in this game tonight. Because who knows, if we don’t have quite the energy level in the ninth inning, how it goes.”

Yasmani Grandal’s game-tying home run in the eighth inning, and Hendriks’ scoreless top of the ninth, set up some last-inning drama for the White Sox, who mustered back-to-back one-out base hits against Twins closer Jorge López, acquired at the trade deadline to be a difference-maker in these exact situations.

Oh, he made a difference, all right, his first pitch to Andrew Vaughn drilling the young slugger up high, the same area where he’s been hit a few times this season, including recently taking a pitch to the face. Vaughn, sick of it, said some stuff. López said some stuff back. The benches cleared, and though it didn’t get any more interesting than that, there it was for everyone to see:

These White Sox had life, these White Sox had energy, these White Sox – after all the injuries and disappointment this season – had a chance.

The next pitch to leave López’s hand hit Abreu. Game over, right? Well, they took a look at it in New York, and it very clearly went off the knob of Abreu’s bat. The goofy chase of the MVP around the bases was for naught, though not for long, as Abreu stepped back in the box and grounded out to bring home the winning run, the Twins’ infield not able to engineer a slow-developing double play.

The White Sox got their emotional win after all. They’ll need a few more to chase down the Twins and first-place Guardians, though not too many; all three teams were within three games of each other by the close of business Friday.

A meager three-game winning streak shouldn’t send anyone to the box office to lock up tickets for a first-round postseason series at the corner of 35th and Shields. But for months, these White Sox have left fans and observers alike wondering what’s gone wrong. Horrid injury luck and statistical curiosities aside, there’s seemingly been a lack of personality on a team that boasts so much of it. Energy, fun, life. Folks have been begging to see it from this club, no matter how hard it is to muster when the losses are piling up.

Friday night, they got their wish. And truth be told, the last few days, the White Sox have looked more like themselves.

“Everyone’s got a little bit more pep in the step,” Hendriks said. “It’s one of those mantras of just, ‘Fuck it. Fuck it, let’s just go.’ This is who we are. We need to embrace who we are instead of trying to be that stoic, old-timey baseball player. Show some emotion, get angry and piss everybody off.”

Maybe that was a topic in the players-only meeting that preceded Thursday’s win over the Royals. There’s been a lot of talk about confidence for years with these White Sox, who for so long looked brash and looked to be leading the sport’s have-fun revolution. Tim Anderson might be the face of it all, but don’t forget these guys swapping superlatives about which of them was going to be the next Babe Ruth and which the next Mike Trout when they were still in the minors.

Confidence, so said Abreu in an earlier meeting of team leaders, had apparently turned into cockiness, with the White Sox believing 2022 would mirror 2021, when they cruised to a division title. It’s a fine line, though, and whether it’s been Anderson or Hendriks saying it, that confidence bordering on cockiness was a key ingredient for this team. Pissing people off, so to speak, was a good way to win, or so they thought.

And it still might be. Hendriks recalled seeing that kind of attitude from the team that dropped 21 runs on the White Sox not too long ago, a team that still gets booed in every road ballpark – and still reaches the World Series on a regular basis.

“Put it from the A’s point of view,” Hendriks said, remembering playing in the AL West with his former team. “Any time this (a benches-clearing incident bordering on a fight) would happen with the Astros, the Astros would take it, because that’s who they were. They wanted the animosity. They fed off it. And I think this is a group in here that can feed off it.

“Hopefully this is something where we can come out, take that and use it to our advantage.”

There really was no fight Friday night. At least there wasn’t supposed to be. There’s no way in hell López was trying to load the bases in the ninth inning of a tie game. Vaughn was just releasing his frustration after another dangerous pitch. The same thing happened to Abreu throughout last season, and Tony La Russa would often express his irritation, saying that pitchers who can’t control that pitch inside shouldn’t be throwing it, that it’s irresponsible and dangerous.

“I was just really mad,” Vaughn said. “I’ve been hit up high a few times, got hit in the face a couple of weeks ago. Spur of the moment, I was mad, I was upset.

“I know he’s not trying to do it on purpose. No pitcher is trying to load the bases with an MVP coming up next. I was just mad. I put my head down. After, I said, ‘That was at my head, that ain’t right,’ then just went to first base. And then everybody was on the field.”

Though it looked like tempers were flaring – the broadcast showed Cairo and Rocco Baldelli getting together and Grandal and AJ Pollock verbalizing their feelings – Hendriks laughed off the idea of a fight, particularly the cause of it.

“It’s literally two of the nicest guys in the world with Vaughn and López. “There’s obviously no intent there in that situation. It ran up and in, and that’s something that we need to be careful of. Vaughn’s had several hit-by-pitches that have been up, not necessarily against the Twins, but all in all, you have to be wary of that, especially with situations like this.

“They’re not trying to fight. We’re not trying to fight.”

But Hendriks wouldn’t mind getting under the skin of opponents a little more. Before the game, he said, he spent time watching every strikeout he’s had since 2013. That’s well north of 600 strikeouts, in case you were wondering. He noticed something, an evolution into a guy who was energetic, loud, sweaty and downright annoying on the mound.

He noticed it was missing a bit of late, and he wanted to be that guy again. And for baseball reasons. Irritating the opposition can put them in a mental state that forces their hand, that makes them want to do too much. And that’s when Hendriks can get them out. He felt he recaptured some of the old magic Friday.

And he pointed out that it works the other way, too.

“(Being) energetic and just (being) loud and obnoxious,” Hendriks explained, “that’s one thing where you can really rattle a guy on the mound sometimes.”

And that’s what they did against López on Friday night.

The White Sox are going through a little surge right now. Hendriks said there are ample reasons why things have been different, and there are ample ones to choose from: the start of the regular season’s final month, the team’s place in the standings, the benefits of that players-only meeting or the motivational factor of La Russa’s indefinite absence as he undergoes medical testing.

We’ve seen far too many false turning points this season to get too definitive about this being the one everyone’s been waiting for. But with more “pep in the step,” as Hendriks put it, and a very small gap between them and first place, the White Sox look as capable as they have all season – and shockingly without a slew of injured teammates.

“That’s what a playoff atmosphere looks like: the fire, the willingness to go out there and compete and perform,” Cairo said. “That’s 27 outs right there, and that’s what we’re talking about in the clubhouse: 27 outs.

“They’re just having fun right now. The game should be played like that: hard, compete, go out there and give everything you’ve got and enjoy what you’re doing.”

Playoffs? Let’s not get ahead of ourselves.

But a playoff race? Absolutely.

Let’s see if these White Sox have the energy to make it to the finish line.

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