What Adam Dunn remembers most about last season’s pennant chase, his first since 2008, is how teammates didn’t have time to discuss vacations plans.
A 12-year veteran who has never reached the postseason, Dunn is very familiar with September conversations in a clubhouse where players know they’re headed home at the start of October. But last season, when the White Sox were alive for 159 games, Dunn had a chance to realize once again how golden the silence of a pennant race can be.
Although the team’s late September collapse was a disappointment, Dunn hopes to find himself in a similar spot in five months. The White Sox believe last season’s experience should help what was an inexperienced roster better handle the stretch drive in 2013.
“Everyone is concentrating on each and every game and focused on that game like they should be,” Dunn said. “It’s such a good feeling to know each day you go to the park you have a chance to separate yourself or get caught. That’s a fun time of year. The biggest thing you can learn is, each game you let slip away can come back and bite you in the end.”
Jake Peavy and Matt Thornton wouldn’t allow a teachable lesson for their young teammates to slip away. With 11 different rookies on the pitching staff last season, the two veterans didn’t want their inexperienced teammates to assume these pennant drives happen all the time. All Peavy and Thornton had to do was point to Dunn and Alex Rios, who also experienced the first pennant race of his nine-year career in 2012, as examples.
Their message was simple.
“They talked about cherishing the moment,” reliever Nate Jones said. “‘Take in what’s going on. Don’t just be all business, but enjoy the experience. It doesn’t happen every year so you have to enjoy it, take it in and work hard for it and finish it off.’ Everyone talks about experience and how powerful it is and we experienced that pennant race. We know just a little bit how to handle ourselves and kind of what to expect.”
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Peavy has been to the playoffs twice before but it has been seven years since he last played in a postseason game. With all he has endured, Peavy wanted teammates to understand the significance of what they were about to experience.
He knew they had no idea of the intensity of the games to come. So Peavy began to deliver his message in August in order to better prepare his teammates.
“You don’t want to take it for granted,” Peavy said. “When a guy’s in his first year in the big leagues and he has a chance to go to the playoffs, that’s special. I wanted them to look at a guy like Alex Rios and look at Adam Dunn, who have been in the big leagues for as long as they have been, and these guys have never had a chance to go to the playoffs. I just wanted them to understand the situation, how special it was, and try to make the most of it.”
Jones remembers how right on Peavy’s predictions were. Sure enough, once the calendar hit September, the intensity multiplied and the importance of every pitch was magnified.
“They concentrated on telling us we still had to keep it under control, to control that geek, and to throw strikes and keep the ball down,” Jones said. “Sometimes you get all excited you start leaving balls up, you start getting hit around a little bit.”
Chris Sale recalls hearing a similar message.
No matter how tired he was, or will be in future pennant races, Sale knows there are no off-days.
And even though the White Sox didn’t win the American League Central after they were in first place for 117 days, there’s still a lesson to be learned.
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“Whether you’re three games up or three games down, winning by a landslide or losing by a landslide, you have to take every game and fight for it. Don’t take a game off. Don’t take an inning off. Don’t take a pitch off,” Sale said. “Whether you do good or do bad, you can still gear yourself toward that whenever it comes again.”
Dunn thinks the message has been received.
He believes it will benefit his teammates this season and beyond. He also hopes it's not another five seasons before his teammates are consumed with baseball until October instead of plane tickets.
“I hope they get it,” Dunn said. “You’re not guaranteed anything. Again I think we emphasized it so much that I think that if they don’t understand it, they will shortly. It’s not like any other sport -- not very many teams get in. It’s hard to get in and it’s really hard to stay competitive for 162 games to give yourself a chance to get in.”