This was the challenge facing the White Sox, if they chose to accept it.
Beat Cleveland at home on a Sunday to end the regularly scheduled portion of the 2008 schedule just to stay alive for playoff consideration, then come back and defeat Detroit on Monday in a rescheduled game, because of earlier inclement weather. Two straight wins earned the White Sox a chance to host a one-game playoff against the Twins, with the winner advancing to the American League Division Series to face Tampa Bay as the AL Central champs.
Yes, it was the same Twins team who swept the White Sox into a precarious postseason position the week before, with three straight victories at the Metrodome. Yet, somehow, someway, the White Sox became the first team in Major League Baseball history to win each of its last three games, against three different opponents.
It all culminated with the "Blackout" payback game on Tuesday night against Minnesota, a 1-0 victory called by some in attendance every bit as exciting as the two home World Series contests in 2005.
"I can understand that," said White Sox chairman Jerry Reinsdorf of fans' comparison of the "Blackout" to the World Series atmosphere. "It was win-or-go-home. We never had a win-or-go-home situation in the World Series. It probably was more tense, although not as important."
"That was an exciting game, the 'Blackout' game, and I don't know how the atmosphere could get any better," White Sox pitcher John Danks said. "But if it could, it would be for a home World Series game."
Danks played a huge part in the Blackout victory over the Twins, when fans wore all black to this highly significant night game at U.S. Cellular Field. But there would have never been a South Side Blackout if not for those wins over Cleveland and Detroit.
Both games saw the White Sox trail early. Jhonny Peralta's second-inning solo home run off of Mark Buehrle gave the Indians a 1-0 lead on that Sunday, Sept. 28, and the Tigers held a 2-1 lead in the sixth after a rain delay on Monday, riding the crafty pitching of Freddy Garcia, a key contributor to the White Sox 2005 championship.
But this one-game meeting with the Twins was meant to be. The White Sox quickly rallied back against Cleveland with three in the second off of starter Bryan Bullington, with the help of Paul Konerko's solo home run, and rode Buehrle's seven innings of one-run baseball, not to mention six strikeouts, to a 5-1 victory.
Alexei Ramirez did the damage against Detroit. His grand slam off reliever Gary Glover, another one-time White Sox pitcher, punctuated a five-run sixth, made a winner out of Gavin Floyd, who gave up one earned run over six innings and struck out eight, and sent the Twins off on their flight to Chicago.
Despite Minnesota having the better 2008 head-to-head record, the White Sox won the home field for the one-game playoff, because of a coin flip done by Major League Baseball on Sept. 12. It was Jake Hahn, the 5-year-old son of assistant general manager Rick Hahn, who told his dad to make the winning call of heads.
No picture better represented this survival to get to Tuesday night against the Twins than the end shot of Ramirez's grand slam. He circled the bases in ecstasy after tying a Major League rookie record with four grand slams in one season, and basically jumped into Konerko's arms when he crossed home plate.
"I don't think you ever expect a one-game playoff," said Konerko -- who had been talking about this division race going down to the final days since mid-August -- after the Detroit victory. "It's an oddity. We are just scrapping, fighting and trying to get to where we want to go."
"You get past feeling tired and forget about all those aches and pains," said White Sox reliever Scott Linebrink, who struck out the side during an impressive eighth inning against Detroit. "Adrenaline gets you going. Our situation is great -- we fought for this and earned it. One hundred and sixty-two wasn't enough, so we need one extra, and we wouldn't have it any other way."
Nick Blackburn earned the start for the Twins, the same right-hander who defeated the White Sox during the three-game sweep at the Metrodome, but he earned less than hearty praise from White Sox manager Ozzie Guillen for his effort. Danks took the mound for the White Sox, the same southpaw who was crushed by Cleveland to the tune of seven runs allowed over four-plus innings on the Friday before.
In fact, Danks was the fourth straight White Sox starter to work on three days' rest. The previous three starters' combined 2-1 record was good enough to get to this playoff game with the Twins.
Danks and Blackburn were absolutely brilliant, with the game scoreless into the fifth. Michael Cuddyer doubled to open the frame and moved to third on Delmon Young's fly ball to deep center. Brendan Harris followed with another fly ball to Ken Griffey Jr. in center -- only this time, the fly ball wasn't all that far behind shortstop.
"I don't think you ever expect a one-game playoff. It's an oddity. We are just scrapping, fighting and trying to get to where we want to go."
-- Paul Konerko,|
before the Sox faced
Cuddyer still decided to test Griffey's arm. But the future Hall of Famer, who came to the White Sox at the July 31 non-waiver Trade Deadline, fired a perfect strike to catcher A.J. Pierzynski, and despite a collision with Cuddyer in which Pierzynski's glove arm was fully exposed without support, the Sox backstop managed to hang on to the baseball.
Third out of the inning. Game remains scoreless. The packed house collectively exhales.
"First of all, if it's five years ago, they don't even run on Griffey," Reinsdorf said. "The best part of that play, A.J., I don't know how he held the ball. Junior made a good throw, but you look at replays with the runner going into his arm, and I don't know how A.J. didn't lose the ball."
"As the starter that night, you try to picture what things look like," Danks said. "Backing up home when they try to throw out a guy at the plate, and getting that big double play. To be honest, I don't remember what it looked like when it was taking place."
Jim Thome's at-bat leading off the seventh, though, would be impossible for Danks to forget -- even with his intense focus in the moment. Thome crushed a Blackburn offering 461 feet into the shrubbery just to the left of center, providing the lone run of this thrilling contest.
"I was lucky I got a pitch over the plate, but I knew I hit it pretty good," said Thome, who was in a 2-for-16 rut on the five-game homestand before his game-winning shot. "The way Blackburn was pitching, to get an opportunity like that off him was very special."
"Thome's home run?" said White Sox outfielder Brian Anderson with a wry smile when asked about it at the start of Spring Training 2009. "I think that ball just landed yesterday."
A fist-pump was delivered from Thome as he rounded first base, the same sort of exuberant fist-pump coming from Danks after finishing off his eighth scoreless inning. Danks yielded Harris' one-out single in the eighth, but induced Nick Punto's double-play grounder to Ramirez to preserve the one-run lead.
"I'm good at hiding emotions, trying to keep it at an even keel," said Danks of the fist pump. "I look like a [goof], but at that point, it was so exciting that I didn't even think about doing it. I just did it."
Bobby Jenks closed out the ninth, with men and women dressed in black waving their white towels in unison as an amazing U.S. Cellular sight to behold. But the game didn't end without one more heroic moment.
Alexi Casilla dropped a fly ball into short-center that looked as if it had "bloop double" written all over it. Anderson, one of the AL's best defensive outfielders, came charging in and made a sprawling catch to set off the celebration.
Months later, Reinsdorf said he felt relief and satisfaction when Anderson made the play. He also didn't realize, at the time, what a great play Anderson made to finish off this late run to the AL Central title.
"Until I looked at the replays, I didn't realize how hard a catch that was," Reinsdorf said. "It looked to me like he had the ball all the way."
"It was tense, especially through that last game. While normally getting to the playoffs is not enough, last year was very satisfying to get to the playoffs, because nobody picked us to do it."
-- White Sox chairman|
"It's weird," Anderson said. "I appreciate the support and excitement fans have told me about feeling over that catch, what it gave them. But at the time, it just seemed like it needed to be done. To me, it was just the final out. I didn't realize how people would make such a big deal out of it."
Anderson's catch brought an end to this wild three days -- make that a wild week -- of baseball. During this time frame, the White Sox suffered the lowest of lows and highest of highs.
They were given up for dead after three straight losses at the Metrodome, including the final one being of the walk-off variety, and don't forget, Cleveland pummeled the White Sox in their first two games back home in that final weekend series. Luckily for the South Siders, Kansas City also took care of business in the Metrodome, or one of the greatest games in White Sox history might never have been played.
Tampa Bay eliminated the White Sox in four games in the ALDS, and with injuries to key players such as Carlos Quentin, Joe Crede and Jose Contreras, Chicago just wasn't as good as the eventual AL World Series representative at that point. Yet, the team battled, scrapped and survived just to get to the ALDS, just as it did all year.
Mission: Improbable? Make that Mission: Accomplished.
"After we lost in Minnesota, I was sure we were dead," Reinsdorf said. "But when we won that game against Cleveland, it really started to build. It was tense, especially through that last game. While normally getting to the playoffs is not enough, last year was very satisfying to get to the playoffs, because nobody picked us to do it."
"We kind of joked in the sixth inning how Commissioner [Bud] Selig would call and say this was a tie game," said Buehrle with a smile. "Just combine both teams and say the Twins/White Sox would go to face the Rays. Take the best from both. It really seemed like nobody wanted to win. But we came out ahead, and that's all that matters."
"It was an important game for the players, but I think the fans took that game to a whole another level," Anderson said. "When the fans are able to take the meaning and excitement of a game to that whole other level, which they did, it's just awesome."
Guillen, a usually colorful quote, summed up this finish in a rather succinct and almost exhausted manner.
"At the finish you can't describe," Guillen said. "It's just something you really fight for all year long."