This preview is a whole lot shorter than we would have liked. Nothing is promised for the White Sox after tomorrow. It might be the start of an epic White Sox comeback (or epic collapse, from Houston’s point of view); the South Siders may also be one more Dylan Cease meltdown away from looking towards 2022. Thus far, they’ve been thoroughly outclassed in nearly every phase of the game, from the stars to the lineup depth to the rotation to the bullpen to the manager’s office.
But it ain’t over til it’s over, and as Lucas Giolito noted in their postgame presser on Friday, winning three games in a row isn’t foreign territory for the White Sox, although their seven separate streaks of three wins or better isn’t necessarily the most exciting record, either. All that being said, the Sox still have plenty of advantages on paper, and 2-0 Division Series comebacks aren’t unheard of. Here’s what we ought to watch for as the series moves to Chicago on Sunday.
Cease takes the mound for our first mid-October home game in nearly 15 years, making it his second postseason appearance after throwing a 1-2-3 inning in relief in last year’s Game 2. It would be ironic if Cease wound up as the only of the Top 3 starters to not essentially give away the game with free baserunners, but that’s what it will take for the White Sox to stay alive in this series.
It feels like there’s not all that much left to say about Cease, who’s been discoursed to death seemingly from the moment of his debut two years ago. He’s been the team’s second-most consistent second-half starter after Lucas Giolito, partially on account of Dallas Keuchel’s cave-in and fatigue for Carlos Rodón and Lance Lynn, but also not in small part because he picked a useful time to put together his best stretch as a professional. Four months ago, proposing Cease as an elimination game starter would have been been a cause for terror. It’s not that much less gut-wrenching now, but after going five-plus innings with three earned runs or less in 13 of his final 15 starts of the season (and it would probably be 14 of 15 if he hadn’t taken a comebacker to the throwing arm in his final start), he’s at the very least legitimately earned a shot at keeping the season alive.
Even assuming Rodón’s ability to start, there’s an argument to be made that Cease is the less risky of the two. One could point to Rodón’s five-inning, one-hit outing to end the season, but that was against a team batting Kyle Farmer at cleanup. Half of Cincinnati’s lineup wouldn’t even make Houston’s roster. The same is true of the Detroit lineup to whom he allowed three runs in three innings the start prior. Rodón averaged 90.9 mph on his four-seamer against the Reds.
The Sox have just witnessed just how difficult it is to get these Houston hitters out. Unless a little extra rest gets Rodón’s velocity back to the mid-90s, it’s hard to see him getting through the order more than one time. Asking Cease to not give the Astros free outs and baserunners might be a tall task, but even the potential of getting a five- or six-inning performance with no more than a run or two probably doesn’t exist with this fatigued version of Rodón.
Opposite Cease will be rookie Luis Garcia, who’s also making his first postseason start, but second appearance after throwing two innings in Game 5 of last year’s ALCS. He looks primed for a Top 3 Rookie of the Year finish after a fabulous freshman campaign that saw him go 11-8 in 30 games (28 starts), working to an excellent 3.30 ERA (130 ERA+) with 167 strikeouts in 155 2⁄3 innings. His 3.1 fWAR were second among all rookie pitchers, behind only Trevor Rogers.
Garcia is the type of pitcher who has given Sox hitters fits at times this season, not lighting up the radar gun but using a deep arsenal and unusual windup to keep hitters off-balance. Against right-handed hitters, almost everything he throws moves away from the hitter, working with a mix of four-seam fastballs, cutters, and sliders. Just as in Game 1, Sox righties will have to display extra patience and resist chasing those breaking balls sliding off the outside part of the zone. Against left-handers, Garcia’s slider goes completely into the dustbin, and he dishes an equal mix of changeups, curveballs, and cutters to complement the fastball. Garcia still had a pretty sizable platoon split, holding righties to a .548 OPS but letting lefties ding him at .814.
Garcia doesn’t have the power of Lance McCullers Jr. or massive movement of Framber Valdez, but he commands the ball better than either of them. Garcia’s cutter, slider, and changeup all have a ton of side-to-side movement, and he makes hay by throwing them in the strike zone and spotting them off the corner just enough to bait hitters into a swing. And if that doesn’t work, his unusually rapid and efficient spin gives his fastball a lot of ride, making 93-94 mph at the top of the zone play like it’s 96-97 mph. It was a game plan he executed to perfection on June 18, when he shut down the Sox for seven shutout innings, striking out eight:
Fortunately, just as the Rodón that went toe-to-toe with Garcia that night seems to have gone into hibernation, there’s a chance that Garcia’s peak this season has also already come and gone. While his fastball velocity actually topped out at the end of September and his 3.67 ERA was for the month was perfectly fine, Garcia’s 11-to-17 walk-to-strikeout rate in 27 innings is a big red flag, especially for a pitcher who’s already nearly 50 innings past his previous career high. The White Sox will likely have their share of pitches to hit; the matter, as always, will be simple execution.
Game 4 & Game 5
If the White Sox survive Game 3, it seems like the question will be “how much” rather than “who.” Updates on Rodón have been vague and far between for almost a month-and-a-half, and it’s utterly unknown how much he’s capable of throwing — if at all.
Even if he does feel good enough to actually make a start, it still seems likely it comes in some kind of tandem with Michael Kopech or Reynaldo López, perhaps dependent on whether we see the former on Sunday. Even if Rodón regains a little bit of velocity, he’s thrown more than 80 pitches exactly once since the first week of August. Unless he makes the Astros look silly, three or four innings seems like the most reasonable expectation at this point.
According to Dusty Baker, if the series goes four games, José Urquidy is likely to get the ball for Houston. Urquidy works with subpar velocity but outstanding command, and like Garcia, plenty of side-to-side movement on his stuff. It’s not, however, a matchup that Sox hitters should have much fear of at home, if they have the opportunity to force a Game 5.
Should that come to fruition, it would naturally be a toss-up between Lynn and Giolito for a winner-take-all, with the latter having pitched on four days’ rest plenty of times this season. Lance McCullers Jr. would line up to take the ball once again for Houston.
With Luis Garcia’s platoon splits in mind, we might expect to see Adam Engel and Andrew Vaughn out of Sunday’s lineup in favor of César Hernández and Gavin Sheets. This assumes that Leury García will return in right field in spite of Friday’s critical missed route, however, Engel could easily retain the starting slot he occupied for both of the first two games, though he has yet to pick up a hit. Hernández has yet to make a start in the ALDS, but the lack of production thus far from Engel and García may open up one last shot at proving his option worth picking up.
On the Houston side, their lineup is unlikely to change much. The only spot in any kind of flux is center field, which alternated between Jake Meyers and Chas McCormick over the first two games.
Little Things To Keep an Eye On
First Pitch Approach (Again)
After taking almost every 0-0 pitch against McCullers, the Sox were a bit more aggressive against Valdez, swinging about a third of the time and picking up two hits. But Valdez is more or less a two-pitch pitcher. Against righties, Garcia throws a first-pitch cutter or slider two-thirds of the time, and lately, he hasn’t thrown it in the zone much. Against lefties, he throws a fastball half of the time. We’ll see if righties can work counts and avoid swinging off the plate, or if lefties will be aggressive early on anything left in the zone.
When Cease got lit up for six runs against the Astros in June, it started when a rare Yoán Moncada error turned into a three-run homer. Walks were responsible for the rest. Sox pitchers have already seen how frustratingly patient these Astros hitters can be, and how damaging it is to give them free outs. Look for Houston to try to slow Cease down, stretch out at-bats, and open opportunities for the running game. Cease is at his best with a healthy rhythm, but long innings tend to follow when teams get him to taking 35 seconds in between pitches with a runner on base. Speaking of which ...
As Darrin Jackson pointed out repeatedly, both games of this series saw the Astros score runs without even getting a hit. They’ve been quick to put pressure on Yasmani Grandal, who understandably doesn’t seem to be playing at 100% just three months after knee surgery, and it’s been effective. Cease has penchant for gifting baserunners and free bases, and he’s rarely (if ever) shown a slide-step delivery, which leads to plays like this one:
As Steve Stone pointed out, if a runner is clearly safe when a pitchout is well executed and the throw to second is perfectly executed, there’s a problem. The Astros scouting department clearly has something of a leg up on everyone. They probably know this. Turning their aggressiveness into outs will go a long way towards evening the series.