As the final game of Opening Day 2023 sped by, players, fans, and media all started to get a sense of what the new pace-quickening of the game could mean to them.
Batters genuinely flummoxed by the mastery of Houston starter Framber Valdez and Chicago’s Dylan Cease appeared to believe they had been shaved from three strikes to two.
Media on press row were in a panic, as no longer would the languid consumption of hot dogs or over-engaged Twitter interactions be padded by the fat of the Konerkoing or Mauerizing of at-bats.
Fans recognized that to even get a second or third beer in, pregaming will have to pull ever closer to noon.
But as baseball fans, we can all agree that Thursday night’s 3-2 duel between starters, and the attendant panic offense at game’s end made for some short breaths and nervous at-bats. Who said you can’t have playoff baseball in March?
After Yasmani Grandal pulled the White Sox even at 1 with an eighth-inning solo shot, Andrew Vaughn finished the job in the ninth, with a one-out, two-run double to push the White Sox to a 3-2, come-from-behind win over the defending champion Houston Astros.
It was the first time in 11 games Houston had lost on Opening Day.
Despite being forced to survive on zero run support from an offense that was comically inefficient early, Cease clearly outpitched even Valdez’s brilliant five scoreless innings of six-hit ball. His efficiency was absolutely extraordinary, at 63 pitches through five innings, 78 through six, and a final line of 6 1⁄3 innings, two hits, one run, 10 Ks — and no walks.
The game didn’t begin so tilted, with Valdez inviting worm-burners with a filthy sinker; it was the sixth Sox batter before even two batted balls (foul or otherwise) were lofted in the air. Still, it was the White Sox who chiseled out hits, just a couple of them screamers. Laugh if you will about Frank Menechino, but an inability to loft against Valdez and the Houston pen doesn’t qualify as duplicating that failure. And traffic on the basepaths just takes one good break, or one smart play, to lead to runs.
Unfortunately, the White Sox were unable to by luck or skill cash in on any such breaks in the early game. In this low-hit duel, Chicago runners reached second base twice with no threat cashed, and it only got worse.
In the fifth with one out, the White Sox put Houston and Valdez on their heels, putting runners at the corners after one-out singles by Elvis Andrus and Romy González, with Andrus essentially stealing third with a veteran’s aggressiveness. Unfortunately by next pitch, the veteran turned really green, lolling his way to home on a one-hopper to third base where he stood zero chance of avoiding instant death.
Still, the rally persisted, and with bases full and two down, Eloy Jiménez crushed a 1-0 sinker up, but rather than driving it high and deep, pounded it to second base for an easy force.
Two frames later, Chicago was back on the move, fueled by a rookie. With one out in the top of the seventh, Oscar Colás slapped a pinch-hit single through the box — literally, as it screamed through Houston reliever Hector Neris’ legs for Colas’ first major-league hit. A deflected single and catcher’s interference later, and Vaughn stepped up with one out and the sacks packed. Unfortunately, there would be no heroes in the lineup for the Sox tonight, as Vaughn whiffed on 93 mph cheese at his eyes, and Eloy Jiménez whiffed, failing for the second straight time with the bases full in the game. At that juncture, the White Sox were 0-for-7 with RISP, having left 10 on by the seventh-inning stretch.
Worse, at the next turn Cease started to flag, first with a fluke HB on Yordan Alvarez — snapping a streak of 19 straight retired — next a sharp single from José Abreu. It was just the second hit of the game for Houston, but his night was over at 86 pitches.
It was the first time in 24 games that Cease did not last at least 90 pitches in a game, snapping an MLB-high streak.
Natch, a very close call on a full count from Aaron Bummer to Kyle Tucker loaded the bases for Houston and got a runner on third for the first time in the game. And like a champion, the Astros found a way to convert, as a curiously-pinballing wild pitch eluded Yasmani Grandal behind the plate, scoring Alvarez and bringing Houston to within six outs of its 11th straight Opening Day win.
Yoán Moncada shook off a two-K day and ripped a grounder through Abreu at first base and into the corner, but overexcitedly tried to pull an Andrus and sprint all the way to third for a leadoff triple, missing a safe call by inches. It is an inexcusable mistake to make that first out at third in a one-run game, especially when failing to bother to check his third-base coach on his second-base turn.
But, boy howdy, with two down and Houston just four outs from victory, Grandal CRUSHED 98 mph center-cut cheese from Rafael Montero to knot the game.
And then in the ninth, with one out and runners at first and second, it was Andrew Vaughn time. Unlike Eloy, Vaughn did not fail twice with bunnies on the bases, getting down 0-2 to Ryan Pressly before the Astros closer decided to cute-and-lazy his way out of the inning: Dumping two for balls, then leaving a nothing 94 mph fastball up and juicy, Vaughn spanking it 108.7 mph for a shot that rolled all the way to the wall for a two-run double.
Reynaldo López came on to close and chucked four straight 100 mph fastballs in getting four strikes and one out. Then a let-up, a slider, which Alvarez punished to right field for an upper-tank homer to bring the game to 3-2. In a flick of lashes, Grandal got VERY careful about letting López chuck that slider again.
All told, it wasn’t the most efficient first career save in MLB history (27 pitches), but López got it done, for the first White Sox win of the season.