Paul Sullivan: An epic win extends the Chicago White Sox season as playoff baseball returns to the South Side for the 1st time in 13 years
Chicago White Sox fans filed into the ballpark early on a warm fall Sunday night, some heading to the sports bars to watch the fourth quarter of the Chicago Bears win over the Las Vegas Raiders and others just to soak in the atmosphere.
Playoff baseball had returned to the South Side for the first time since 2008, and a packed house of 40,288 black-clad fans was there to greet the Sox.
What those fans got was an epic game that went on and on and on and on, just like the lyrics of their favorite Journey song.
With the Sox on the brink of elimination in their American League Division Series against the Houston Astros, the fans came to cheer and jeer, to toss around an inflatable trash can in the bleachers, to moan about the plate umpire’s calls and to groan about Dylan Cease’s control, to sing their classic rock songs and shake their hips and wave their towels and act like kids again.
And that was only the first two innings. The night was young, and the craziness was just beginning. It didn’t stop until the Sox had kept their season alive with a 12-6 victory.
“Guys were (saying), ‘We’ve got a lot of game, we’re going to play nine,’ ” Sox manager Tony La Russa said. “That’s a tough lineup, but sometimes you get rewarded with a comeback like that. That’s the way we’ve been. We know we’ve got some offense, and if we can hold them down, we’ve got a shot.”
The Sox and Astros packed more action into the first four innings than most fans see in a week in this age of the three true outcomes — strikeouts, walks and home runs. It was almost as if the ghosts from that cornfield in Iowa had hitchhiked to Chicago to re-create the epic “Field of Dreams” game in October, but with the stakes much higher, the crowd more juiced and Kevin Costner nowhere in sight.
Is this heaven? No, it’s Sox Park. But the upper deck is only a few clouds away.
The Sox were up and down more than two squirrels chasing each other on a phone pole, sending their fans into ecstasy one minute and inducing brain fog the next.
Fans sang AC/DC’s “You Shook Me All Night Long” in the fourth inning, knowing they would be there all night long. The game was already 2½ hours long, and no one seemed to mind … as long as the Sox were winning.
“No fans left, (and) that was a long game,” La Russa said. “I can’t tell you the impression that made on our ballclub, that the fans stayed around at the end. And all the energy they brought early ... that was amazing.”
The Astros blew a chance to sweep, and manager Dusty Baker pointed to “a bad series of events for us ... the ball wasn’t bouncing our way.”
The wild rumpus began about a half-hour before the game, when Cease received a standing ovation just for walking out onto the outfield to stretch before warming up. During the pregame introductions, even groundskeeper Roger “The Sodfather” Bossard took a bow and was greeted with a chorus of cheers.
One small hitch occurred when the Sox played a video from former President Barack Obama exhorting the team just as Astros second baseman José Altuve was stepping to the plate, making it sound as though the crowd was booing Obama instead of Altuve.
Some probably were, but most of the venom was directed toward Altuve, who was part of the sign-stealing scheme that made the Astros public enemy No. 1 in 49 states and a few territories.
The inevitable chants of “cheaters” greeted Altuve and Alex Bregman in the first inning and eventually evolved into “(Bleep) Altuve” as the night wore on. When Cease struck out Bregman on a 100 mph fastball to end the inning, the ballpark erupted as if Cease were finishing a no-hitter.
Spoiler alert: He was not.
Eloy Jiménez got the Sox on the board with a two-out, RBI single to center in the bottom of the first, allowing Sox fans to breathe a sigh of relief, only to watch Cease’s control completely disappear the following inning, leading to a quick exit.
He was charged with three runs on two hits and three walks in 1⅔ innings, making him the third Sox starter to get pulled before pitching five innings in the first three games of the series.
Michael Kopech finally emerged from the witness protection program to great applause, but he soon added to Sox fans’ anxiety level, serving up a two-run home run to Kyle Tucker in the third to make it a 5-1 game. Well, it was fun while it lasted.
But then came the comeback Sox fans dreamed of when they were napping Sunday morning but never really expected to see. Yasmani Grandal’s two-run home run off Astros starter Luis García pulled them within two, and Leury García’s three-run shot off reliever Yimi García gave them a 6-5 lead.
Baker said after Luis Robert walked to lead off the third, “all hell broke loose.”
The obligatory plastic trash can was then brought out in the right-field bleachers and tossed around like a beach ball as fans trolled the Astros for the 2017 cheating scandal.
All was copacetic until Kopech gave back the lead in the top of the fourth, putting Sox fans back on their collective therapy couch. And that’s when things went from a little bit crazy to completely insane.
José Abreu’s run-scoring single put the Sox back on top in the fourth before Grandal hit a grou
nder to first baseman Yuli Gurriel, who threw to the plate to try to nail Robert.
The ball grazed off Grandal’s arm as Robert slid into the plate and into umpire Tom Hallion, who fell on top of the Sox center fielder. Baker argued that Grandal was out of the basepath but to no avail.
Baker said he was told once the ball is in play, there’s no interference unless it’s intentional.
“Clearly he was running inside, and that’s interference in itself,” he said. “That was a big play in the inning.”
Baker said Grandal is a catcher “and knew what he was doing.”
“That was a smart play on his part,” he said. “The explanation that they gave me, that they didn’t see anything wrong with the play.”
Grandal confirmed he knew the rules and denied any intention on his part.
“It just so happened to hit me,” he said.
La Russa concurred.
“No way did he do it on purpose,” La Russa said. “(Hallion) called it correct.”
The ruling stood, fans lustily booed Baker and the Sox had an 8-6 lead. Jiménez beat out an infield hit for another run, and the Sox seemingly were back in control.
Relievers Ryan Tepera and Aaron Bummer were dominant over 3⅔ innings, and the Sox added three insurance runs in the eighth.
Things settled down for a while, but Sox fans upped their game. This was no time to slack off.
It was a night they never would forget — if they only could remember it Monday morning.