Like most biased observers, I have long since allowed myself--against high-minded notions of caution--to believe that the White Sox are going to make the playoffs.
It's mostly 2011's fault. A season mired in mismanagement, a lineup devout in its adherence to Murphy's Law, and the type of errors in execution that would inspire a Governor to call for a moratorium would make a team with just average luck seem charmed.
But it's also Chris Sale's fault. As good as Alex Rios, A.J. Pierzynski, and Jake Peavy have been, Sale is the talent that even rival fans marvel at, or even grumble about their team passing on in the draft. When he's at the height of his powers, the Sox seem like an elite act that some broadcast network might dedicate their primetime hours to in early October. When he's not, well, it directs highly critical eyes to the merits of Philip Humber, which just doesn't seem fair.
As such, there was a lot riding on Sale's return against the Royals after a 9-day sabbatical. After a 94 mph heater for strike one opened the game, it was already a success of sorts.
Not only was Sale's fastball no longer a weak spot in his first start back from a "dead arm period", it served as his putaway pitch for the night. He generated seven swinging strikes on his heater alone, and sitting 92-95 all night allowed him to play more of a fastball-change game with hitters, and adhere a bit more to the 'less sliders' mandate that his return to the rotation originally carried.
The by-product was an electric atmosphere worthy of Sale's skill level. A late-arriving crowd topped 30,000, the offense's continued troubles with Luis Mendoza lent more drama than a showdown with Royals probably deserved, and Sale's work to power his way out of an 8th inning jam in a tie game gave him the moment of fire-breathing satisfaction and triumph that such a frustrating stretch ought to be capped by.
A game-deciding scenario presented itself, and Sale was able reach back and find the power he had lacked for weeks. It sure looked good; I imagine it felt the same.
That Sale was rewarded with dramatic late-inning offense for a 4-2 victory only made it sweeter. It's been a while since I was so eager to watch a game I missed and already knew the results and highlights of.
The 'it's just one game' principle that was repeated ad nauseam while Cody Ross was dancing around home plate just a few weeks back, applies here as well, especially considering the tenuous nature of Sale's health. But the Sox players were kind enough to match any over-exuberance brought on by one good night with some of their own.
Sale, girding himself for a finish that might not have another break in it, sounded ready.
"We got a couple months left and we are going to have to make a push, and it's not going to be easy. So we've got to hop on board and bring it every day."
Even Gordon Beckham, a hero for the day, got in on the rah-rah vibe
"I don't know if you've noticed, but the fans are coming out and supporting us. That's been a lot of fun to have fans in the stands every night. We're getting to crunch time. We need them as much as ever."
The games where early-season plans of pacing and rest, and long-term goals of preservation start to fade in the background as the immediate reward of a playoff berth starts to dominate the view--they're dangerous, but it's also when things start getting really fun.