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Another stirring White Sox victory over the Houston Astros on Tuesday night brought plenty of good news, but Dylan Cease’s start wasn’t one of them. His streak of 14 consecutive starts with fewer than two earned runs came crashing to a halt, and even if Andrew Vaughn flagged down Alex Bregman’s drive on the warning track to allow Cease to escape the third unscathed, Houston might’ve been able to wound him elsewhere.
Cease generated only 14 whiffs over 93 pitches, which isn’t bad for most pitchers, but decidedly down for him. He threw some great sliders, but he also threw his share of spinners and bouncers. He had a hard time finding the right elevation on his elevated fastball. The Astros showed why they have one of the league’s lowest strikeout rates, and with Justin Verlander sharing the mound, some of the missed locations might’ve been a reflection of Cease sensing a smaller margin for error.
Yet if you compare it to the last time he faced the Astros at Guaranteed Rate Field — Game 3 of last year’s ALDS — I’d argue that while his mediocre five innings on Tuesday was a small step back for his season, it might be a larger step forward in terms of big-game experience.
Leury García’s game-changing homer helps erase the fact that Cease got knocked out in the second inning after allowing three runs over 1⅔ innings last October. He fell apart after a 1-2-3 first, walking three batters in the second and throwing just 20 of 44 pitches for strikes, which was Reason 1B why Tony La Russa had such a short hook (the 0-2 hole in the series was 1A).
So much else happened during that game that Cease wasn’t asked about his five outs. Instead, the only question he handled was about the bullpen’s strong final five innings.
One of the weird things about last season is the White Sox spent the entire second half coasting. The big divisional lead provided ample opportunities to rest players who weren’t 100 percent, but it also provided a whole bunch of excuses as to why one performance, one game or one series didn’t go like it should.
The White Sox tried to prepare themselves for the sudden surge in gravity as October approached, but the Astros still plastered them against the wall with 37 runs over four games.
For better or for worse, the White Sox are getting exposed to postseason intensity well in advance this time around. The first two games of this series only drew about 41,000 fans combined, but the lack of capacity crowds haven’t diminished the urgency sensed by the reporters on hand …
… the fans …
… or the players in the dugout:
And the White Sox have looked a lot more engaged, with even Yoán Moncada expanding his expressions beyond “placid” and “pleased.”
They still make mistakes due to their limitations, but they’ve minimized the ramifications of them, and they’ve prevented deficits from expanding in order to give the offense ample opportunity to cobble together a crooked number.
Ideally, it would come so much easier, whether because they put the ball over the fence with regularity or because they have enough outfielders to fill an outfield, rather than first first basemen whose defensive metrics might as well say “bless their hearts.” I still don’t care to see Yasmani Grandal DHing until he starts pulling the ball in the air, because the ball hasn’t rewarded the Sox for their opposite-field contact all season, and as we saw in the second inning, the impact of Grandal’s singles are limited when he can’t score from second on one.
But if there’s a benefit to the Sox’s flaws being so pronounced this time around, it’s that it seems like they’ve given up on cruise control. Sure, there will be off games and blowouts where the scoreboard tells the Sox to try again tomorrow, but the standings — and maybe Johnny Cueto — are telling them to assume nothing about the next day until it becomes abundantly apparently, and they’re accepting the advice.
The 2022 White Sox have picked a hard way to make a living, but they’re alive nevertheless. If they grunt their way into the postseason, they’ll show up this time with their mettle thoroughly tested, for whatever that’s worth. Identifying which dings, dents and holes are the results of friendly fire can be left to forensics.