White Sox’ Adam Engel finds his comfort zone

With an improving bat, athletic, versatile outfielder Adam Engel has a job secured for the first time in his career.

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Adam Engel celebrates as he walks to the dugout after hitting a three-run home run during the second inning of a baseball game against the Kansas City Royals, Friday, July 31, 2020, in Kansas City, Mo. (AP Photo/Charlie Riedel)

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For a fourth outfielder in his fourth season, Adam Engel put together a nice little highlight package in 2020.

There was his running catch for the 27th out of Lucas Giolito’s no-hitter and the home run in Game 1 of the wild-card series, a 4-1 White Sox victory. And who didn’t enjoy Engel’s “butcher boy” fake-bunt-and-slash single through the middle of the infield for a pinch RBI single that scored the go-ahead run in a 3-1 victory against the Twins on Sept. 14?

Those three plays demonstrate Engel’s well-rounded game, versatility, elite speed, awareness and value. Engel’s most cherished individual moment, however, was his three-run homer into the left-field bullpen July 31 in Kansas City. It was a needed blast on a night when a usually potent lineup was quiet, and it held up in a 3-2 victory for the Sox and left-hander Dallas Keuchel.

“Being a role player more known for my defense, to come up with one big at-bat was a cool moment because I feel like the team doesn’t lean on me for offensive production,” Engel, 29, said. “That was fun. That game stood out.”

A 19th-round Sox draft pick from Louisville in 2013, Engel batted .295/.333/.477 with an .811 OPS in 2020, posting his first OPS above .687 while appearing in 36 of the 60 games played. He also started all three games of the wild-card series when manager Rick Renteria took struggling right fielder Nomar Mazara out of the lineup for the first two games.

A Gold Glove finalist as a center fielder in 2018 who leaped above the wall to steal three homers in one week that season, Engel was sent to Class AAA Charlotte in 2019 to work with hitting coach Frank Menechino, who since was promoted to Sox hitting coach.

It was a demotion Engel said might have saved his career. He has tinkered with various approaches, stances and swings since college, but he finally feels settled.

“It’s me capitalizing on using my eyes to tell my body what to do,” he said. “Not a lot of pre-pitch movement, just enough to stay loose. Allow my eyes to let my body react. If I can get my body to be in a good position to see the ball, it allows my athleticism to play and react. My athleticism is one of my strengths, so I have to get out of my own way and allow my body to do what it wants to do.”

Engel’s offensive numbers have improved steadily each season, and while circling the bases after the homer in Oakland, he felt like he was no longer a liability as a hitter. He assumed his wife, Jaime, who is expecting the couple’s fourth daughter in April, was cheering loudly, but “my heartbeat was so loud, I couldn’t hear her. I couldn’t hear anything,” he said.

The Sox lost the next two games in Oakland, and Engel, who was 3-for-12 with two extra-base hits against the Athletics, went home to Cincinnati with a “sick” feeling.

“For a pretty long time, it was really hard to even think about baseball,” Engel said. “We felt like we let one get away. We were right there. Oakland is a great team, but we believe in ourselves and felt we were in a good position to advance. For me personally, I couldn’t get at-bats out of my head for a while. What I should have done differently.”

It felt like losing a good friend, Engel said.

“We had this opportunity,’’ he said, ‘‘and that specific group will never be together again, and that’s hard to get over. But as we’re starting to prepare again for the upcoming season, that kind of almost mourning process is completely flipped, and there is absolutely motivation in that. But it shifts from that sick feeling to excitement and anticipation.”

Engel was rewarded last week with a one-year, $1.375 million contract, avoiding arbitration and earning a nice raise after making $571,000 in 2019. A .303/.343/.424 hitter against lefties in 2020 and a .257/.303/.386 hitter vs. lefties in his career, he figures to platoon with left-handed-hitting Adam Eaton in right field and provide backup depth for Eloy Jimenez and Luis Robert in left and center.

The hope is spring training begins on time in February, and for Engel, it will be the first camp in which he won’t be fighting tooth and nail to win a roster spot.

“We’re really looking forward to getting out there again,” Engel said. “Hopefully we’ll have more fans, and we’ll get back to more traditional baseball. There’s a lot to look forward to.”

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