It's been a White Sox season unlike any other that has preceded it. It's had extreme highs and lows, one that has had us as a fanbase thinking we could be a legitimate World Series contender or simply be just another .500 team, often a mere few days apart from each other.
Soxtober begins on Thursday, and it will begin with the first-ever winner-take-all postseason game in the history of the franchise. Think about that for a moment. This franchise has been in existence since 1901, and it has never played a postseasongame where the losing team was guaranteed to have their season come to an end. That is truly astounding, but it will no longer be the case as of late Thursday afternoon.
I think collectively we all felt pretty good after the White Sox 4-1 victory over the Athletics on Tuesday. Lucas Giolito dazzled and did what an ace is expected to do on a big stage, delivering the biggest performance of his young career. That enthusiasm was tempered after a 5-3 loss in game two of the series, a game in which, frankly, the Sox could've won had it not been for a Nick Madrigal misplay in the first inning and a combination of bad luck/baserunning on a ball hit by Yoan Moncada. The Sox fought back valiantly against A's closer, Liam Hendriks, getting the tying run to second base with Jose Abreu at the plate. Alas, it was not meant to be and we are left staring a decisive game three in the face.
So, how will these two teams approach this game? Earlier in the week, I wrote about the role that rookie fireballer Garret Crochet would potentially play in the series for the Pale Hose. To this point, we haven't seen the 21-year-old southpaw, and I wondered if it was possible that we see him utilized as an "opener" in the winner-take-all game three. There seems to be some traction to this idea:
This would be a hell of a scenario to thrust Crochet into just a few short months after being drafted out of the University of Tennessee. Taking the mound to start a game on a day when your team's season hangs in the balance is no small task for a seasoned veteran, let alone a rookie with six Major League innings under your belt.
However, Crochet's awe-inspiring fastball could be the type of weapon to neutralize the A's offense early in the game, giving the Sox an opportunity to strike first and allowing Ricky Renteria to dictate how Bob Melvin utilizes the American League's best statistical bullpen.
Following Crochet, it would obviously be all hands on deck to cover the requisite 27 outs. Fortunately, Giolito's ability to get into the eighth inning on Tuesday should leave Ricky Renteria with his full complement of high-leverage relievers, including Aaron Bummer, Evan Marshall, Codi Heuer, Matt Foster, and Alex Colome.
It's really unclear how or if Ricky would utilize Dane Dunning and Carlos Rodon. Dunning represents the most likely alternative to Crochet taking the mound in the bottom of the first inning for the South Siders. However, Dunning did have some late-season command issues that may simply be a byproduct of a pitcher essentially rehabbing from Tommy John surgery at the Major League level and experiencing a dead arm period. The question becomes, will the White Sox brain trust have enough confidence to thrust Dunning into this situation?
Offensively for the Sox, the biggest question revolves around the foot of slugger, Eloy Jimenez. We have not seen Jimenez in either game to this point, as the lingering effects of a slide at the plate last week in Cleveland have taken one of the team's most potent bats out of the lineup. The absence of Jimenez's bat in the middle of the order represents a gaping hole for the team. We've been privy to seeing the light-tower power from Eloy all season, and his mere presence will cause Bob Melvin and the A's pitching staff to approach the surrounding hitters with a heightened level of caution that could prove to be their downfall should they slip up to the likes of Jose Abreu and Yasmani Grandal.
On the opposing side, I'd anticipate Mike Fiers taking the mound for the Athletics. I don't believe Bob Melvin will make the mistake of throwing Sean Manaea against the Sox, as he saw firsthand what this team does against left-handed pitching when they continued their season of dominance against southpaws in game one.
I'd anticipate a short leash with Fiers, leaving the A's vaunted bullpen to try to pitch them into the ALDS for the first time since 2013. The A's offense overall doesn't scare you, but as we saw in game two, this team has home run power that can strike quickly just as the Sox do.
So a season that has been a tremendous rollercoaster, and one that has seen the team open their contention window, all comes down to this. This stands to be the most highly anticipated and nerve-racking day for Sox fans leading up to this game. This day rivals the feeling of 9/30/08 when the Sox defeated the Twins in the Blackout Game to clinch the American League Central title (the tears of Twins fans will forever bring me strength). I know I won't be able to focus on much else, and I'd anticipate most of the fanbase feels the same. I know I'm expecting the fan base to be totally rational on talk radio and Twitter leading up to the game, though.
We're 27 outs away from knowing if this team will continue playing or not. It's been a crazy ride -- one that I'm not ready to end just quite yet. The anticipation is mounting, and this promises to be one of the most memorable games that any of us White Sox fans have ever seen.