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If Friday night’s 13-3 shellacking at the hands of the Houston Astros looked like Game 5 of the 2021 ALDS for the White Sox, their victory today represented an attempt at resetting the record.
Throwing an entirely right-handed lineup against the right-handed Cy Young front-runner Justin Verlander — partially out of strategy, but more out of necessity — the White Sox pounced on mistakes for two big crooked numbers that knocked Verlander out of the game in the fourth inning. Meanwhile, fellow-pitcher-closer-to-40-than-30 Johnny Cueto threw seven shutout innings for his first victory in a White Sox uniform, in an effort that might make him the staff’s new No. 1 starter.
The White Sox frustrated Verlander with a sequence of batted balls that avoided Houston gloves, even when Houston bodies were in front of them. They tagged him for five hits in the third inning, something Verlander hadn’t allowed in five years.
Perhaps we knew it was charmed when Seby Zavala stayed on a decent slider and lined it into left field for a leadoff single. Zavala’s numbers against right-handed pitching are rough, but Verlander came into the game with reverse splits, holding lefties to a .475 OPS this year (.566 for rightes). Danny Mendick followed two batters later with a single through the vacated right side, and while Andrew Vaughn faced two defenders thataway, he still found a gap with his grounder off the end of his bat, which loaded the bases with one out.
Luis Robert then came to the plate with the same shift Mendick saw, and he did the same thing, but about 13 mph harder. His single rolled into the right-center gap to bring home two, and José Abreu scored two more with a grounder that got past a diving Alex Bregman, but also stayed close enough to the outfield chalk to get all the way into the left-field corner, rather than doinking off the side wall and back into play. That drove in two more, and the outburst silenced Minute Maid Field and staked Cueto to a 4-0 lead.
In the fourth inning, the Sox offered more of the same. Josh Harrison shot an outer-half fastball through the right side to start the inning inside-outed a pitch through the right side. After Zavala struck out, Adam Engel lined an outer-half slider into right field. Verlander then fanned Mendick, and when it looked like he’d escape damage when Vaughn hit a hard one-hopper at Jose Altuve, the ball instead skipped through Altuve’s wickets and into center field. Harrison scored on the error, and Robert added two more unearned runs to Verlander’s tab when he produced a carbon copy of Abreu’s double.
Verlander, who entered with a 1.94 ERA on the strength of a mere 49 hits allowed over 78⅔ innings, gave up nine hits and seven runs (four earned) over 3⅔ today.
White Sox pitching only allowed three singles all day, with Cueto doing the heavy lifting. He allowed a leadoff bloop single to Altuve to start the game, but when Michael Brantley lined into an 3-unassisted double play, any storm clouds immediately evaporated. Cueto retired the next 10, and while he gave up another hit and a couple walks over the course of his afternoon, not a single Astro reached scoring position against him, and Reynaldo López saw that fun fact through over the remaining two innings.
Cueto has pitched at least six innings in all six of his starts with the White Sox, and he lowered his ERA to 2.95. Since he made his debut on May 16, here’s he compares to the other members of the White Sox rotation:
Cease has a lower ERA, but he’s allowed a whopping 10 unearned runs over this stretch (one for Cueto). Kopech is harder to hit, but he left his last start in the first inning with an injury, and who knows how he’s going to look Sunday. Meanwhile, Cueto’s numbers also include an emergency five-inning relief appearance necessitated by Kopech’s departure, and it’s hard to imagine any other member of the rotation faring as well.
I’m not sure six starts can define somebody as a staff leader, but I think that’s enough to anoint somebody a staff savior, because imagine what the picture would look like without Cueto doing what he’s been doing. He only has one win to show for it on his record, but while the Sox are just 3-4 in his appearances this year, they’re in a whole lot better shape the day after.
*Robert and Vaughn each went 3-for-5, and because they did it in succession from the second and third spots, Robert had four RBIs to show for it.
*AJ Pollock was the only White Sox to go hitless, finishing 0-for-5 with a strikeout.
*The White Sox hadn’t saddled Verlander with a loss since June 11, 2014. In between defeats, he went 7-0 over 13 starts with a 2.32 ERA, and his teams went 11-2 against the Sox.