Sox's Sheets seizes opportunity to shine

Last October, Gavin Sheets was toiling at the Arizona Fall Instructional League. After a promising three-year rise through the Chicago White Sox minor league system, it was a low-key end to a COVID-19-induced lost year of competition.

In Sunday evening's 12-6 Sox victory, he got his second start of the American League Division Series against the Houston Astros. After playing first base and going hitless in 4 at bats in the series opener, Sheets was inserted into the lineup's seventh slot as the designated hitter.

Sandwiched between strikeouts in the second and sixth innings were a pair of hits: In the third inning, the left-handed slugger bashed a two-out single that was part of a 5-run Sox erasure of a 5-1 Houston lead. In the fourth, after Chicago retook the lead, 9-6, Sheets tallied another single to right field that loaded the bases before the rally dissipated with two groundball outs.

A week earlier, before the regular season finale, Sheets took stock of the dramatic development in his career's arc.

"If you told me last year at (the Instructional League) that I would be in the playoffs, I would have said, `Hey, I'll take your word for it, but I'm not sure I believe you,'" Sheets chuckled.

Over two stints with the team since late June, the 6-foot-5, 230-pounder appeared in 54 games, supplying power (11 home runs, 34 RBI) from the left side of the plate. His .830 OPS (on base percentage plus slugging percentage) was one point below that of teammate Jose Abreu, and over 100 points higher than the Major League norm.

During the final Sox homestand, Sheets had a torrid three-game stretch: 6-for-10, with a pair of home runs and seven runs driven in. The production came after catcher Yasmani Grandal helped him identify a flaw in his approach.

"I felt that I was just missing some balls when I got back up," Sheets recalled. "And then Yasmani actually saw something on film and we went over it and watched a lot of film together. Something just clicked."

He declined to detail that "something" though he continued, "We looked at good swings and we looked at bad swings and there was definitely a big difference in a move that was made."

Grandal's support reflects what Sheets called "an unbelievable clubhouse culture."

"He'd go out of his way to help me at the cage," Sheets added. "That was huge."

Sheets' father, Larry, hit 94 career home runs - including a roof shot at old Comiskey Park in 1987 - during a 748-game big-league career played mostly for the Baltimore Orioles. According to the 25-year-old, dad's counsel is straightforward: "You have to enjoy this."

"He played (eight) years in the big leagues and never got to the playoffs. To do this in your rookie year is incredible," said Sheets. "He's like, `Enjoy clinching and popping champagne, enjoy every second. You're not guaranteed another one.'"

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