That biggest of at-bats has yet to arrive for the Twins, though last night had a doozy. But for the White Sox it was The At-Bat. And, like all the other big moments between the Sox and Twinst this year, it went the Twins way.
It's the bottom of the 7th inning, the Sox are behind by a single run at 4-3. They also have the bases loaded and one out, and are attempting to drive in a run for the 3rd straight inning. The Sox crowd recognizes it may be The At-Bat, and is on it's feet, urging the Sox to find a way to save their season.
Trying to stop them is Twins right-handed reliever Jesse Crain. Crain has been the Twins best reliever over the second half of the season, and it hasn't been particularly close. Mostly his resurgence has been due to a nastier slider that is complimenting his fairly straight fastball. He is the closest thing the bullpen has to a shutdown guy, and he's the closest thing they have to a strikeout pitcher against right-handed hitters.
He needs that strikeout acumen to clean up a mess that he didn't make. Matt Guerrier started the inning for the Twins, giving up two singles. Crain came in to try and stop a bunt, but White Sox shortstop Alexei Ramirez succeeded in sacrificing himself so the runners could advance to second and third base.
It looked like Crain had already succeeded in getting the second out against the next batter, #3 hitter Alex Rios. With the count at 2-2, he had throw two consecutive pitches to Rios that tickled the outside edge of the strikezone, but home plate umpire Brian O'Nora refused to raise his hand, and Rios got a free pass to first. Now Crain is looking for a strikeout, pop out, double play....anything that will keep the tying run from scampering home from third base.
In some ways, the White Sox have exactly who they want at the plate. Paul Konerko is undoubtedly the White Sox MVP this year, posting big stats (.324 average w 36 HR) and putting them up at big times. Two days earlier he led a comeback from a 6-2 deficit in what was almost an elimination game by hitting two home runs. That's almost typical for Konerko this year. In this game he had a walk, a single and a triple in his first three at-bats.
About the only things he hasn't done well? First, he hasn't hit with the bases loaded this year. He was 1 for 7 with a walk, three strikeouts and a double play to his credit. Second, he hasn't hit Crain. He entered that at-bat 2 for 16 with two doubles and 8 strikeouts. Of course, he doesn't need a hit here. He just can't strike out.
Crain slips or oversteps or something, and ends up with a delivery that looks terrible and a pitch that is worth nothing. It is a fastball low and away, not even close. It doesn't tempt Konerko, it doesn't set up another pitch, and it doesn't send a message unless that message is supposed to be "I'm losing it."
It was bad enough that I tweeted that Crain was losing his composure after not getting the strike call on the two previous pitchers. Fortunately, I was wrong, and he would show that to me over four of the next five pitches.
A little spooked by that first pitch, it's time for something else, and the only other "else" Crain really has is the slider. (Crain would end up throwing 20 pitches this inning - 11 sliders and 9 fastballs.) He pokes the outside lower corner of the strikezone with it, gets the call from O'Nora, and serves notice to Konerko that this at-bat has now really begun.
Within every Season, every Game, every At-Bat, is there always The Pitch? If so, this was it. Crain throws another fastball, and again it's wild, but this time it's wild in exactly the way you don't want. Aiming low and way, Crain throws it....right down the middle of the plate. That's Konerko's "hot zone." Hell, that's everyone's hot zone. (According to Inside Edge, Konerko hits .417 on pitches right down the middle.)
Konerko connects, but fouls it straight back. That means his timing was dead on; he just swung the bat a little off-center of the ball. Instead of a game-tying smack, he finds himself down in the count 1-2, and needing to swing defensively.
If you're looking for proof after that last pitch that Crain is regaining his composure, it comes on the next pitch. Mauer and Crain opt for another fastball on the inside edge of the plate. That's the kind of pitch that most hitters, including Konerko, can yank into the right field bleachers. But Crain gets it inside just enough keep Konerko from catching up to it. It's fouled off behind the plate, too.
Enough living dangerously. Time to go back to that outer half slider, especially when it's slower speed has been set up by throwing consecutive fastballs. Crain makes almost the exact same pitch he did for strike one, only a little further outside, probably too far outside to be called a strike. But Konerko has seen that pitch once, needs to respect it, and swings to foul it off and stay alive.
The one constant in this at-bat to Konerko has been changing speeds. Pitch 1 was a fastball, pitch 2 was slower, and pitch 3 was a fastball again. Pitch 4 was a fastball, but on the inside edge of the plate so the swing needs to start even earlier. Then pitch 5 was another slower slider.
Pitch 6 continues that trend, going back to a fastball. Crain finally makes the pitch he has twice missed during The At-Bat. His fastball hums over the outside edge of the plate, dangerously up in the zone, but up far enough that Konerko swings under it. The At-Bat is over.
So is the White Sox season, seemingly. Next up is Manny Ramirez in an at-bat that has some drama, but Manny is nowhere near the player that Konerko is this year. He proves it, watching Crain's outsidish slider get called for two strikes before swinging vainly at it (when it is a couple of inches outside) for strike three. He simply has no answer to that pitch.
The next inning the Twins break the game open versus the White Sox bullpen, creating an anti-climactic ending. Those runs come against the same relievers who would've pitched if the White Sox tied the game or took the lead, but that doesn't change the importance of The At-Bat. The Sox had their chance to change the course of the game, the series and the division, and weren't able to do it. It would take another half inning for the stands to start emptying, but the season was over.
------------------A Geek Note
You might be surprised that the stats support how big an at-bat that was.
Before Konerko's at-bat, even though they were down a run, the White Sox had a 56.4% chance of winning that game, based on history. By the end of Konerko's at-bat, it was down to 41.2%. By the end of Manny's at-bat, it was down to 25.8%. According to Win Probability Added, Crain was the most valuable pitcher by a long shot last night. And Konerko, despite his earlier contributions, ended up providing a very slight negative value overall on the night, due to that one at-bat.
But you probably didn't need the stats to tell you that.