“Those are the types of ball games that will get you into the playoffs at the end of the year,” White Sox starter Dylan Cease said after Tuesday night’s raucous, ridiculous and exhausting 7-6, 12-inning victory over the Blue Jays.
This is true in several senses, since going 11-7 in one-run games is helping keep the White Sox afloat at 33-33, amid a disappointing start that could be worse if their run differential is to be believed. But also, the resources that were poured into the effort will probably provoke a wave of compensatory conservation moves in Wednesday’s getaway day finale.
Tim Anderson, already managing his effort on the basepaths in his second game back from a groin strain, was a toss-up to play three games in a row before he logged 12 innings Tuesday night. De-facto closer Kendall Graveman is likely unavailable after working his second consecutive game. José Abreu scored the winning run from second while staggering through obvious leg discomfort, and will be at designated hitter in the series finale, if that, per manager Tony La Russa. Abreu’s potential pinch-runner in the 12th, Leury García, is also still battling side discomfort. Vince Velasquez, who threw the final two innings and was seemingly tabbed with pitching until the game ended, will also be unavailable.
These are the types of ball games with enormous cost, so the only peaceful resolution is winning them. Multiple comeback bids — including a two-out, two-run, game-tying Luis Robert single in the ninth and Josh Harrison’s walk-off single in the 12th — were required after Cease’s six innings of one-hit ball with a career-high 11 strikeouts were not enough to secure the easy victory that this Sox team has so rarely been able to enjoy.
“I really don’t want to think about it because there’s tomorrow, right?” La Russa quipped. “Guys who were not supposed to pitch, pitched. We’ll think about that tomorrow. It all came together for a win. Just a very special win. Our guys, they’ll never quit.”
But also, even with as many tough extra-inning losses the Sox have (they’re now 4-5), they’ve also had plenty of false starts with “This will be the game that turns us around,” moments, since baseball rarely offers such clean, cathartic breaks from larger trends. Their previous 12-inning victory to outlast the Cubs last month — which also included brilliance from Cease that went for a no-decision — was immediately followed by a three-game sweep in Toronto against these same Blue Jays. On Tuesday night, as much as the Sox relished turning a game where “Fire Tony!” chants erupted as the Blue Jays rallied for a three-run eighth full of soft contact against rookie Davis Martin, into a walk-off celebration, they didn’t need a test of character. They just need to play better.
“This whole season has been a test of our character,” Harrison said.
So what from Tuesday night actually means something going forward?
— Chicago White Sox (@whitesox) June 22, 2022
Josh Harrison, for starters
It would be a small comfort if Harrison flipping a 1-2 slider from Jays reliever Matt Gage to left-center was one big hit amid a slow start. But it’s just one part of a month that’s seen Harrison hit .325/.378/.475 across 12 games, along with more frequent bursts of highlight-reel defense at second base despite some initial choppiness this season. Harrison hit .172/.255/.263 over his first two months amid increasingly scattershot play as Danny Mendick and Jake Burger emerged, even with starting third baseman Yoán Moncada mostly sidelined or ineffective.
Despite lifting his first home run of the season on Monday night, it’s hard to look at what Harrison has done the past couple of weeks and see a major sea change beyond better batted-ball luck. But conversely, it would be impossible to look at Harrison’s first two months and not notice the awful batted ball luck (.200 batting average on balls in play before June) as the main departure from his career norms. The White Sox bet on Harrison’s much-beloved clubhouse presence and the likelihood that his numbers would normalize eventually as he continued to put the ball in play at very high rates (14.8 percent strikeout rate), over the likelihood that someone like Yolbert Sánchez or Lenyn Sosa could immediately light up the majors despite a lack of standout offensive tools. So far, they’re being rewarded.
“It comes with playing games in succession,” said Harrison, who certainly is in line for more playing time with Moncada back on the injured list. “I’ve gotten a chance to go out this past week and play games in a row and get in a rhythm. Early part of the season wasn’t ideal. I was telling somebody earlier I’ve dealt with adversity my whole career and it’s not how you start, it’s how you finish.”
“He’s got a career of making plays and taking tough at-bats,” La Russa said. “He got off to a slow start and now he’s starting to be himself, but he’s never lost his positive frame of mind in the clubhouse.”
In throwing six scoreless innings with one infield single allowed, Cease wound up only factoring into half of Tuesday’s game (the less interesting half). He tore through the Jays’ order with six strikeouts on 43 pitches in a perfect first three innings, and he was legitimately on no-hitter watch into the sixth.
“I would rank that probably No. 1,” Cease said about where this game stood among the best performances of his slider. “It’s a good feeling. It feels like if I get it in the zone, I’m pretty much un-hittable. So, that’s kinda what I was rolling with today.”
In previous outings this year, Cease lamented being a “one-trick” pony when he felt he had to lean on his slider too much, and wasn’t able to get the same effectiveness with his other secondary pitches. But this month, Cease has shifted his grip to make his slider harder with more spin, frequently tickling 90 mph with 3,000 RPMs. It’s a shift that makes the pitch much more clearly his most powerful weapon, and makes his pitching coach start sounding like a scientist who worries that his new innovation might have gone too far.
“It’s something we’re really monitoring,” said pitching coach Ethan Katz, who doesn’t want the search for a harder-than-hard slider to change the pitch’s shape and function. “We definitely don’t want it to morph into a cutter. We like the depth on it right now. We’ll watch it. We’re going to see how it goes. It’s good right now.”
Cease threw his slider 50 times out of his 101 pitches Tuesday night, and got a swing-and-miss or a called strike a delirious 26 times. Beyond how sharp and nasty it was — since Katz was wary of just pursuing those qualities endlessly in-game — Cease was most over the moon about how reliable his slider was to locate, which reduced his need to throw other pitches to set up counts to use it.
“Command with it, really,” Cease said of what was best about it. “Being able to get it to that down-and-away quadrant consistently, I just think as a hitter it’s hard to lay off that. Then, throwing strikes with it as well, just puts them in swing mode.”
Luis Robert Game MVP
If not for Cease or Harrison, Robert driving in four runs, including two separate game-tying at-bats in the ninth or later — and making a sliding catch in center field to help send the game tied to the bottom of the 12th — might have made him the story of the night. Anderson and Andrew Vaughn have emerged as the best hitters on the team this season, and Abreu’s improved discipline is putting him on their tracks, but when Robert is activated, his singular ability to have impact all over is undeniable.
Robert has posted a 121 wRC+ so far this season, meaning he has been 21 percent better than the average hitter with his overall offensive contributions. And he’s batted .325 since coming off the COVID list on June 1, despite recently expressing dismay at his production level over that stretch. Only the relative absence of his power, and a lack of progress in his out-of-zone chase rate, keep his 2022 from looking like an improvement. But now with four-straight games with an extra-base hit, and Robert starting to take part in a team-wide trend to work the opposite field this month — including on his two-run single in the ninth — these look like issues that are in the process of being resolved.
“We didn’t chase off, we didn’t put those weak balls into play,” hitting coach Frank Menechino said in the wake of Robert’s central role in a seven-run barrage against Justin Verlander on Saturday. “And all of a sudden we make that guy come over the plate and we’re able to do damage to something.”
(Top photo: Kamil Krzaczynski / USA Today)