TOP OF THE SEVENTH: INDIANS 2 3 – 2 WHITE SOX
The balaclava: official formal-wear of Siberia, ski slopes and bank robberies everywhere, and now…April baseball.
I notice very little in-between out there on the field, with Chris Sale going sleeveless beneath the jersey shirt, Melky Cabrera and Jose Abreu going for full coverage on the face and neck—not, apparently, getting the memo challenging all comers to brave the cold with the barest, most chap-prone outfit they can muster.
Chris Sale indeed seems to have gotten the message, going for the stubborn pride of a frostbitten pair of forearms and the pinkest ears in the ballpark.
But it appears to be getting to him.
While the cross-town Cubs are enjoying Spring Training 2.0 in sunny California and Arizona, life back home in Chicago has sent Sale onto a frozen mound of dirt at U.S. Cellular Field, chucking a red and white sphere of ice to a group of hitters desperate to slap it right back at him, or over his head for hits often enough that he’ll be out there all afternoon.
In the top of the 6th, the Indians put up two runs after the second out, with the distracting, tempting warmth of the clubhouse wafting over just out of reach of the pitchers mound.
Now, in the 7th, Sale tries to refocus. His string-bean bolo whip of a wind-up and delivery gets a strike on Yan Gomes. 1-2 count, no outs.
He’s lucky, in a way, not having had to pitch in the snow flurries of the day before (see below), but here he is in barely milder weather, nearing the end of his very-solid seven innings, trying to wrap it up with a win still in reach.
You try making this play in the daggum snow.
— Cleveland Indians (@Indians) April 8, 2016
Yan Gomes works a full count.
Next pitch: home run. 3-2 Cleveland.
The mood of the south-side faithful flips in one instant to disappointed, the cold suddenly feeling many degrees colder, as they adjust and tighten their Russian-style winter hats, with the Sox logo stitched on the fronts.
It’s unlikely, everybody knows, that the bats get going for a comeback in these conditions, more likely that they’ll take in a .500 record to start the new road trip, and likely too that this promising team is perhaps just a flash in the pan that won’t get back to winning ways for many weeks, if at all. Their team is a wild card, with big hopes but big uncertainty, potentially spoiling a big win here that would shake off the awkward dramas of Spring Training, and stake their early-season claim to the weakened AL Central division, with the World Champs in Kansas City good, and everyone else beatable.
Even after the home run, Sale looks at once like the most intimidating, talented player on the field and like he might also lose by forfeit as a cold wind blows him away into Lake Michigan, his Gumby-esque frame barely holding up as his pant legs and sleeves blow furiously on the mound.
He strikes out Collin Cowgill, as the pitch count rises over 100. Rajai Davis then pops up to Jimmy Rollins at short, and we go to the bottom of the inning, Sale having lost the lead and confidence of the cold-braving fans, but walking to a front-row seat in the dugout ahead of the best offensive inning his team has had on the year—just minutes away.
BOTTOM OF THE SEVENTH: INDIANS 3 – 2 7 WHITE SOX
Jackson rips a single between third and short—we’ve got the makings of a rally here!
Jimmy Rollins comes up, Exhibit A in the long list of Sox players who’ve left legacies—or at least familiar names—with prior teams: Rollins with the Phillies, Jackson with the Tigers, Todd Frazier the Reds, Melky Cabrera the Yankees, Brett Lawrie the Blue Jays, with GM Ken Williams opting for a tamped-down version of the typical Yankees team-building strategy—with the same pinstripes, colors and long history, but without the top-level budget to afford the best (and youngest) from the annual stars-with-other-teams free agent menu.
Sox TV analyst Steve Stone discusses the bunt possibility here for Rollins, and appropriately so given the weather and one-run deficit.
But Rollins will have nothing of it, swinging away and slapping an opposite-field double down the line, a sharp ground ball just hugging the chalk—and suddenly it’s no outs, men on second and third, as the umpire calls it fair with a shivering arm pointed toward fair territory.
Jose Abreu, the big slugger, comes up—his balaclava quite bravely pulled down to his neck, if just for a moment.
Francona calls for the intentional walk.
Bases filled now, a new chance on the table for the Sox to blow the game wide open and to start breathing down the Royals’ division-leading necks in a way they hope will continue all season.
Todd Frazier comes up, who looks great in the new Sox uniform—the latest part of the mass exodus of talent that’s left Cincinnati in recent years, starting with Shin-Soo Choo, then Edinson Volquez and Johnny Cueto, Mike Leake and continuing.
Frazier breaks his bat on a foul ball, rubs his hands together for warmth as he picks up a new one, and the TV feed splits into three frames showing each baserunner, making the visuals of a possible comeback all the more convincing.
Melky Cabrera looms in the on-deck circle.
Meanwhile Zach McAllister is warming up in the bullpen, as I notice the Chief Wahoo graphic on his shoulder patch, still part of the franchise logo scheme, but drifting more and more into the outdated category with each passing season, as Cleveland starts the oddly slow transition into uniforms with a simple, block-lettered CLEVELAND on the front, and an accompanying C on the hat.
Frazier grounds into a force-out at 2nd base, the double-play foiled as Jason Kipnis can’t quite get the second throw off in time. Jackson scores for the tie.
Small-ball rally complete!
The fans start to stir from their mid-innings hibernation. There’s a man in the front row with an M&M’s themed parka and ushanka fur hat, completely loving every moment of this rally, the classic Chicago winter look—rousing all the disappointingly complacent (to him at least) fans sitting around him.
Now Melky at the bat. Shaw’s pitches start scattering all over the map, as Melky waits for a mistake to pounce on.
He fights off a low slider, foul. Still hasn’t removed the balaclava.
Shaw rubs the ball in his hands and twists it around looking for a grip as he readies his delivery. He wants to be home, soaking in a bath of hot chocolate, somewhere far from the large mound of baseball hitting talent that is Melky Cabrera.
Another foul, this dude just won’t go away. Another foul. M&M Man seems to have disappeared, either to some warm-weather indoor den or, more probably, to run around the rest of the park rousing all the south-side faithful.
And then: Melky rips a line drive to right! The ball short hops in front of Cowgill, sinking just in front of his glove, the cold actually helping offense for once with the right-fielder slightly more delayed than on a mid-summer night.
Sox lead: 4-3.
And now…with two outs…the man of the chilly, we-need-a-rally, we-all-want-to-go-home hour: Avisail Garcia.
Dude looks like a linebacker, striding up there like he’s just lined up a sure tackle. Shaw is over 30 pitches now in this single inning, but Francona makes no move to the pen.
Two fouls. 0-2. Then a third pitch. An important pitch. A pitch that lands in the right-field bullpen seconds later and brings home three more White Sox to score. A pitch that might just send this team on a wave of confidence to the upper half of the American League.
Home run! 7-3 Sox.
“It is gone!!” I hear on the broadcast—“…three-run home run, Avy Garcia breaking it wide-open in the seventh!!”
The inning soon ends, then the game, and the Sox head home with the kind of pride normally reserved to Mount Everest hikers and ice-road truckers, beating the cold, the odds, and changing bit by bit the expectations around the city.
Don’t sleep on this team.