CHICAGO -- On a seasonably pleasant half-price Monday, U.S. Cellular Field was buzzing, and not just on Big Hurt Beer.
It felt like a real big city ballgame with more than 30,000 tickets sold for the first time since Aug. 6 and more media, one team employee surmised, than Opening Day.
Yes, it's pennant race time in a football town where, for once, the best offense might be wearing blue and orange. It's a weird feeling when the Bears have more pop than the Sox and Cubs.
The ballpark felt almost playoff-like in the sixth inning when Alex Rios drilled a three-run homer to break the Sox out of an offensive funk. It was just as loud in the ninth when Addison Reed closed it out with a one-two-three inning.
Not "Jay Cutler says Shhhh!" loud, but you get the picture.
As North Side baseball bard Theo Epstein might say, baseball is better when you have breathing room in the standings, not in the stands.
"Obviously, it's been tight the whole year," Rios said. "If we can get ahead a couple games, it'll make it much easier on us players and everybody else."
The Sox did it the old-fashioned way, improving to 40-11 when they hit multiple homers, proving grizzled Tigers manager Jim Leyland prophetic.
"Against this team, I think it's pretty simple," Leyland said before the game. "You've got to keep them in the ballpark. They hit it out of the ballpark. That's what they do."
With three more games against the Tigers this week, getting off on the right foot was crucial. Then again, any kind of win against Detroit is crucial, considering the Tigers had won seven straight over the Sox and 10 of 14 overall. While they came into the game tied with the best batting average with runners in scoring position (.283), the Sox have been struggling lately in that department -- 20-for-107 over 10 games, including 0-for-10 in this game.
"I think everybody was frustrated the way the last few days have gone," Sox manager Robin Ventura said. "When 'Rio' hits that ball, it just kind of pops the cork on all that angst of not getting guys in."
I didn't know angst had a cork to pop, but when Ventura breaks from cliches, you go with it.
In the minutes and hours after a game like this one, it's easy to say this win will be the harbinger to the Sox finally beating up on Detroit, but we'll have to wait and see. Neither team has shown much of a killer instinct.
The Sox also need to reverse another recent trend, and I'm not talking about attendance. For years now, the fall has been Bearish Season for the White Sox.
I did a little research before Rios' homer. In the past six seasons, the post-2005 reality, the Sox are 85-95 in September/October. Not horrible, but not exactly formidable either.
Last season, during the Bridgeport Death March, the Sox were actually 68-66 after five months before finishing with an 11-17 thud. In 2006, the Sox were 78-55 before a 12-17 finish knocked them out of the playoffs. In 2008, the Sox went from 77-59 to 89-74, needing that dramatic one-game playoff to win the AL Central. They had a winning September/October in 2010, but really, it was the worst of all. The Sox were 72-60 going into September, and went 16-14 to end the season, but before a strong finish, they had an eight-game losing streak in September that stretched into a 2-12 funk. The Sox finished six games back of Minnesota that season.
Of the four times in that span that the Sox have had winning records going into September, they've finished with losing records in that month (and a few days of October). They are 4-5 since August and you get the feeling this team could really go either way with injuries and inconsistency.
After sitting out his fourth straight game, slugger Adam Dunn said his oblique injury feels better, and he might pick up a bat Tuesday. But that's a tough one for any hitter. Rios, arguably the Sox's MVP this year after a miserable 2011, has had a slow start to September, and was 5-for-30 before Monday.
Jose Quintana rebounded from a couple bad starts by throwing 7 2/3 innings of one-run ball. He had seven strikeouts, four of which ended an inning, including a strikeout-throwout in the first.
It was a masterful performance, especially considering Ventura had pitchers warming up in the third. The manager later said Quintana showed "guts." Paul Konerko went a little further, comparing the rookie to a certain "big game" pitcher.
"That game could've gotten sideways early," Konerko said. "Just when you think he's on his last leg out there … he kind of reminds me of Freddy [Garcia] when Freddy was here. He goes out the first inning, throws 50 pitches and his shirt's untucked, all over the place. The next thing you know, you look up in the seventh and he's in there."
Quintana was relieved in the eighth by the "Veal Omogrosso" bullpen duo. If you've never heard of Brian Omogrosso and Donnie Veal, well, time to study up. Because it's no-names like them that dominate a Sox bullpen that is so very important right now.
Don Cooper told reporters that starter Francisco Liriano, one of Williams' splashy trades, is going to the bullpen for the next few days, and maybe beyond. The thought is Gavin Floyd will likely start Wednesday when he comes off the disabled list. Rookie Hector Santiago just made his second career start.
But as Leyland said, it's not the pitching you worry about with the White Sox. If the Sox hit this series, especially with Detroit's struggles at the plate, they can use this series to propel them through the month. Maybe September is just a state of mind for this team.
"Listen, they're a great team," Beckham said. "But we've been playing well all year to be in this spot. We want it. We want it bad. I know they want it. We're just going to fight it out until the end."