Sheets off the shelf: Big pinch-hit fuels White Sox rally

August 17th, 2022

CHICAGO -- Gavin Sheets had never faced Justin Verlander entering the seventh inning of a 4-3 White Sox victory over the Astros Tuesday night at Guaranteed Rate Field.

So, if he was going to connect on his first matchup with one of the game’s greatest pitchers, the left-handed slugger might as well have made it meaningful.

With the Astros leading, 3-1, one out and runners on first and second in the seventh inning, Sheets connected on a Verlander slider for a double down the right-field line to tie the game when Josh Harrison and Seby Zavala scored. Yoán Moncada delivered the game-winning hit for a second straight night, dropping a bloop single to center off Héctor Neris with two outs in the eighth, and Liam Hendriks’ 18th straight save converted preserved a fifth straight White Sox win.

Chicago improved to a season-high five games over .500 at 61-56 and remains tied for second in the American League Central with the Twins, who beat the Royals. Both teams are one game behind the Guardians, who lost again at home to the last-place Tigers.

Forty-five games to go. Three teams within one game of the top spot, and the White Sox were able to get there Tuesday thanks in part to Sheets’ fifth hit in 10 pinch-hit at-bats this season.

“Get him in the zone. The main thing. First and second, I want to get the ball in the air,” Sheets said of his thought process as he stepped in for Lenyn Sosa. “I didn’t want to hit something on the ground and get a double play.

“He went to the breaking ball, and my main thought was get something in the air and get something in the strike zone. I was able to do that, and I was just hoping Seby was going to score.”

These late-inning heroics took center stage away from the Cy Young pitching matchup between Verlander and Chicago's ace Dylan Cease. Verlander allowed three runs on eight hits over seven innings, striking out four and walking one. On the other end, Cease had his streak of consecutive starts with no more than one earned run allowed end at 14, as he gave up three earned on six hits in five innings with four strikeouts.

But manager Tony La Russa explained to Cease after the game how it was his grit with his less-than-best stuff making it possible for the White Sox to rally late.

“It’s a different kind of pat on the back, five innings, he gutted it out,” La Russa said. “He threw a lot of pitches because he wasn’t sharp and they’re good. I’ll remember this one when I think about him a long time because [it could have been], ‘Man, it’s not my day.’ That’s not what he did.”

“I was disappointed. It wasn’t my sharpest outing,” said Cease, who threw 93 pitches. “But it was close enough to keep us in it, and everybody else picked me up. Getting the win definitely helps.”

Verlander’s lone walk came in the seventh to Zavala, who battled back from a 1-2 count. Sheets was down 0-2 to Verlander before taking a spiked slider in the dirt and then connecting on the next breaking ball.

This process of pinch-hitting begins for Sheets in the fourth or fifth inning, when he gets a cup of Starbucks and gets to work. He’ll stretch, hit off a tee and hit off a machine, so he doesn’t get caught off guard.

“You kind of get a little bit of a routine,” Sheets said. “It’s kind of like being a reliever. You know there’s a chance in the eighth and ninth. There’s a chance for a big at-bat. You just kind of get ready for the moment and embrace it.”

“It doesn’t matter top of the order, bottom of the order, middle of the order, I don’t like giving up runs, especially in that situation late like that,” Verlander said. “Not happy about it.”

The White Sox improved to 3-2 against the Astros, who eliminated them from the postseason last year. They guaranteed a split of this four-game set in front of 23,476 frenzied fans who are dreaming of more for the first time this season.

“We know it's crunch time and there's nothing to give away,” Cease said. “We've got to go out and take as many as we can."

“Winning has been fun. It’s been a lot of fun,” Sheets said. “There’s an energy in here. We know what’s at stake.”