Despite rumors to the contrary, there will still be a series up for grabs in Houston on Sunday!
Johnny Cueto and the Houston Astros lineup both turned back the clock to 2014, and the Chicago White Sox offense hunkered down for their most critical bounce-back of the season in a 7-0 shutout win on Saturday afternoon, beating Justin Verlander for the first time since June 11, 2014. The South Siders chased Verlander for seven earned runs on eight hits, handing him his shortest outing as a member of the Astros at 3 2⁄3 innings pitched. It was his first time failing to complete four innings in a start since July 2, 2017 — when he was still a member of the Tigers.
It was also the Sox first win in Houston since the four-hit shutout from Lucas Giolito on May 23, 2019 that seemed in some senses to foreshadow the end of the 2016-19 rebuild.
The one trend that didn’t seem to change today? José Abreu entirely owning Verlander, as Pito’s scorching-hot June continued with a huge, two-RBI double in the third inning that blew the game open and seemed to break Verlander’s spirit after none of the inning’s first three hits broke a 95 mph exit velocity. Abreu entered today with a career .364 (16-for-44) average against Verlander, and the third and fourth runs of this game were his eighth and ninth career RBIs against the future Hall-of-Famer.
Things started routinely enough, as Verlander retired six of the first seven Sox hitters he faced, with a two-out, first-inning single from Luis Robert the only ding in his line entering the third inning. Cueto, meanwhile, opened on shaky ground, catching a huge break when Michael Brantley’s scorched 101 mph line drive shot straight into Abreu’s glove at first place for an unassisted double play after José Altuve opened his half of the first with a bloop single to center.
After a second inning that saw a couple more sharply-hit fly balls turn into outs, Cueto needed no more help retiring an Astros lineup that simply couldn’t square up his zig-zagging mix of sinkers, sliders, changeups, and cutters. Following a 101 mph fly out off the bat of Kyle Tucker that took left fielder AJ Pollock to the warning track for the second out of that second inning, Houston didn’t hit a single ball harder than 93 mph off Cueto, who allowed just two hits and required only 93 pitches to get through seven innings, lowering his ERA on the season to 2.95.
On the other end, the damage against Verlander began innocuously enough, starting with a two-strike single to left field from Seby Zavala to lead off the third inning. To that point, Verlander seemingly had been moving the ball around the strike zone at will, rarely missing his spot by more than an inch or two at a time.
Two hitters later, the little things started to fall into place. As we saw last October, Houston’s defensive positioning is typically impeccable, but for some reason, they didn’t seem to think that the light-hitting Danny Mendick would attempt to go the other way against the high-powered (even at 39) JV, allowing an unremarkable 95 mph opposite-field grounder uncontested into right field for the second hit of that inning.
The opposite-field trend continued with the very next hitter, when Andrew Vaughn put an excellent swing on an excellent 1-2 slider off the outer edge of the zone, slicing it into right field for the inning’s third hit, though Zavala and his catcher speed was forced to hold at third.
Though no run-scoring damage had been done, Vaughn’s hit was perhaps most emblematic of the team’s clear game plan against Verlander today: Take it where it’s pitched, and don’t get beat inside. Verlander spent the early innings painting the outer part of the plate with fastballs and sliders, and the Sox decided to meet him there. Five of the eight hits the Sox landed in the third and fourth innings went to the opposite field, and none were of the terribly hard-hit variety.
Still, the Sox numbers with the bases loaded this season have let us know that nothing was guaranteed. Fortunately, they picked the right time to register the one hit that was under no circumstances a cheapie, as Luis Robert followed up Vaughn’s effort with a two-run single to right field that left the bat at 107 mph and had an expected batting average of better than .600:
After Abreu’s double made it 4-0 and Verlander finally made it out of the inning by inducing ground outs from Pollock and Jake Burger, history repeated itself in the fourth inning. Josh Harrison continued the right-field hit parade, flaring a middle-middle fastball the opposite way to open the frame, only for Adam Engel to follow up a Zavala punch out with more or less the exact same process and result. Visibly frustrated with getting beaten on weakly hit balls the other way, Verlander proceeded to switch things up and get beaten on a very hard-hit ball the other way, as Vaughn’s 102 mph rocket between the legs of Altuve scored yet another run and set the Sox up for even more damage.
One batter later, Robert said good-day, sir to Verlander’s outing and set the game’s final score in stone with his third hit of the game, another double, just barely inside the bag at third.
The rest of the game took barely an hour and change to play out from there. Houston’s Phil Maton, Brandon Bielak, and Héctor Neris allowed just three more hits and nary a run over the final 5 1⁄3 innings. All the White Sox needed in relief of Cueto was two innings of Reynaldo López, who allowed just a single baserunner, striking out three and touching triple-digits on the final pitch of the game to bring his season ERA down to 3.38.
The series’ rubber match will be played out tomorrow on Sunday Night Baseball, with Michael Kopech (2-2, 1.92 ERA, 3.15 xERA) returning from an injury-abbreviated outing last weekend for his second ESPN appearance of the season opposite Cristian Javier (3-3, 3.20 ERA, 2.90 xERA). A win will have the White Sox back at .500 for the first time since late May, while a loss will take them, well, right back to where we’ve been for most of the past two months.
May the Baseball on National TV Gods take greater pity on us tomorrow than they did yesterday.