September 30, 2008. The White Sox have just beaten the Detroit Tigers in their final game of the regular season to match the Minnesota Twins with an 88-74 record. Now, the two teams must play a single game to decide their fate.
The game is set to take place in Chicago after the White Sox won one of a series of provisional coin tosses to decide the home team for any hypothetical one-game playoff. The Sox get home-field advantage despite the fact that the Twins won the season series with a 10-8 record—the result of a rule that will later be changed in part because of this instance.
When the game becomes official, the White Sox send out a request that all fans attending the game wear black as part of a show of solidarity and an attempt to intimidate the Twins. This “Blackout” creates one of the most amazing visuals the stadium has ever produced:
John Danks takes the mound for the White Sox for a 6:37 CDT first pitch. The 23-year-old southpaw has turned in an outstanding sophomore season, having pitched to a 3.47 ERA in 32 starts. DeWayne Wise, Ken Griffey Jr., and Jermaine Dye are in the outfield left to right, and Juan Uribe, Orlando Cabrera, Alexei Ramirez, and Paul Konerko take the infield from third to first. A.J. Pierzynski is behind the plate, and Jim Thome is the DH.
Twins right fielder Denard Span leads off against Danks. The rookie has set the world on fire since being recalled from AAA, hitting .299/.392/.452 over a three-month stretch. He battles with Danks for seven pitches before drawing a leadoff walk, bringing up Alexi Casilla with a runner on.
On an 0-2 pitch, Ron Gardenhire calls for a hit-and-run. Span takes off for second and Casilla hits a line drive to the left side. For the tiniest moment, it looks as though the Piranhas are at it again, about to start a rally and bury the Sox in an early hole. But the ball shoots right into the glove of Uribe, and with Span hung out to dry it’s an easy double play. Joe Mauer strikes out, and maybe things are going to be alright after all.
Unfortunately, when the Sox come to bat in the bottom of the 1st, Wise hits into a double play himself, erasing Cabrera’s leadoff single. Twins starter Nick Blackburn matches Danks with a scoreless 1st inning, and from there, the zeroes only continue to pile up.
Danks pitches a 1-2-3 inning, striking out Justin Morneau on a nasty cutter. The Sox again put their leadoff man on with a Thome walk, but another walk by Ramirez with two outs is all they can muster. Through the 3rd we go with only a walk by Nick Punto. Through the 4th we go with only a single by Dye. It’s the kind of intense pitching duel one hopes for as a fan of baseball, and the intensity is only about to rise.
The Fifth Inning
Michael Cuddyer leads off the top of the 5th with a ringing double down the left field line for the Twins’ first hit of the game. This is already the best scoring opportunity either team has had so far, so Danks has to go to the well to try to keep the Twins off the board. He gets ahead of Delmon Young 0-2 before burying a changeup down, and Young skies it to center. Griffey makes the catch, but the ball is deep enough to get Cuddyer to third.
The next batter is third baseman Brendan Harris. Once again, Danks grabs a pair of quick strikes, but he misses badly with an 0-2 cutter and a fastball outside. With the count 2-2, Danks tries another changeup but misses up in the zone. Fortunately, Harris gets underneath it and hits a fly ball to center field. Griffey tracks the fly ball hanging up in shallow center. Cuddyer is tagging, but it would be aggressive to try to score from this distance.
Griffey is 38 and no longer a center fielder, yet he’s been called upon to man the position that he played with such talent and grace as a young superstar. He sees Cuddyer take off toward the plate. With what might be his last shot at a World Series on the line, he catches the ball and uncorks it with all he’s got left—which isn’t much.
The throw skips over the mound toward Pierzynski, who has Cuddyer bearing down on him. He catches the ball right before the second hop, on the third base side of the plate, and wraps it around Cuddyer’s body as he comes diving in, tumbling backward after a hard collision. Pierzynski has successfully blocked the plate, applied the tag, and held onto the ball, and Griffey has made The Throw that keeps the game scoreless.
In the 6th, Danks works around a two-out walk to Span, and Blackburn pitches a 1-2-3 bottom half.
The Seventh Inning
Neither pitcher is showing signs of slowing down. They’ve allowed a combined 4 hits and 5 walks, and Harris’s sac fly attempt was the only real threat from either offense. Danks has thrown 87 pitches going into the 7th inning when Mauer surprises everyone by bunting at the first pitch. The ball dies in front of home plate, close enough for Pierzynski to pick it up and throw out Mauer at first.
A groundout and a flyout later, we’re at the 7th inning stretch, still scoreless. Thirteen straight scoreless frames have gone by in about an hour and a half, although with the stakes as high as they are, it’s felt more like a lifetime. Blackburn comes back out to work on his two-hitter facing the middle of the order: Thome, Konerko, and Griffey.
Thome, like Griffey, is 38 years old. Unlike Griffey, he’s been to the World Series twice (1995 and 1997), but he’s never won. After losing his job to Ryan Howard in Philadelphia, he’s used his prodigious power to revitalize his career in Chicago, but is still hoping for a chance to win it all. He gets ahead in the count 2-0, then takes a fastball on the outside corner. The next pitch is a cutter that gets in on his hands a bit, and he fouls it off.
On 2-2, Blackburn tries to put Thome away with a changeup and misses his target by an entire strike zone. The ball floats in above the waist at 84 MPH on the outside corner, and Thome swings with all his country might, sending a fly ball deep into the night.
Thome’s moonblast gives the White Sox a 1-0 lead, at long last ending the deadlock and putting the Sox in position to win the game. No 1-0 lead is safe, but it sure beats the alternative.
Griffey hits a one-out double and is replaced by pinch-runner Brian Anderson. Blackburn intentionally walks Ramirez to bring his night to an end, and Jose Mijares retires Pierzynski and Uribe to end the inning.
The Eighth Inning
Anderson remains in the game in center field, and Danks returns for the top of the 8th. Six outs stand between the White Sox and a division championship. Young hits the first pitch the other way, sending a fly ball deep to right, but Dye is able to track it down. Harris manages a seeing-eye single through the left side, and Matt Tolbert comes on to pinch-run. Nick Punto bats with Danks 100 pitches deep, and suddenly the sinking feeling returns, as it often does in the late innings of a one-run game. But Punto taps a ball on the ground, tailor-made for Cabrera, who starts a 6-4-3 double play. Danks swaggers off the mound with eight scoreless under his belt.
After Mijares and Joe Nathan work through the top of the order in the bottom of the 8th, it’s show time for Big Bad Bobby Jenks.
The Ninth Inning
Jenks has had a good year, but not the same kind of year he did in 2007. He’s 29-for-33 in save opportunities, but he’s only struck out 37 batters in 60.2 innings. It seems like this is in part due to diminished velocity, as Jenks has worked mostly in the mid-90s this season.
Or maybe he’s just holding back. First pitch to pinch-hitter Jason Kubel: 97 MPH fastball down the pipe, fouled off. Next pitch, 98 MPH up, fouled off. Then 99 MPH, fouled off. Jenks hasn’t shown this kind of velocity all year, but now he’s throwing the kind of heat he did when he burst onto the scene as a rookie.
Jenks throws an 0-2 slider down and in, but Kubel doesn’t chase. He throws another slider a bit closer to the plate, and Kubel does chase. One out.
Span takes a fastball high and wide, and then he gets a fastball up at 98. He swings and hits a groundball to first, and defensive replacement Nick Swisher takes it to the bag for out number two.
Now, Casilla is the only thing standing between the Sox and their return to the postseason after two years of disappointment. On the first pitch, Jenks reaches back and pumps in a 100 MPH fastball. Casilla hits a looper into shallow center.
This offense of newcomers has hit 235 home runs, the most in baseball by a wide margin. The Opening Day starting rotation has thrown nearly 950 innings, including 400 from Danks and Gavin Floyd. The pitching staff led the majors with 23.7 pitching WAR. Alexei Ramirez hit four grand slams. Carlos Quentin came out of nowhere to blast 36 home runs, and was on his way to serious MVP contention before a self-inflicted injury.
This long, strange, thrilling season could come to an end right now, if Brian Anderson could just get to this ball...
The Chicago White Sox are 2008 American League Central Division Champions. After being on the ropes, they won three straight games in three straight days against three different teams, and they take the division with an 89-74 record. Now it’s off to St. Petersburg, where the Tampa Bay Rays await the start of the Division Series.