White Sox

White Sox: Nate Jones' extraordinary journey back to the mound


White Sox: Nate Jones' extraordinary journey back to the mound

Buried in the fine print of Chris Sale’s 15-strikeout victory over the Cubs on Sunday was an achievement that should have been written in bold letters, highlighted in yellow magic marker. It was a performance quite extraordinary for a guy whose comeback is anything but ordinary.

The return of Nate Jones is not your fastball down the middle. It’s a twisting slider that catches both sides of the plate. It’s a long, crooked journey that easily could have ended back at his home in rural Kentucky instead of in a major league box score with a 0.00 ERA.

Jones’ 16-month odyssey began at spring training in 2014. The White Sox reliever suffered a hip injury, except it wasn’t a hip injury.

“We couldn’t figure it out,” Jones said, looking back.

But the pain was there in his hip. He felt it everytime he landed on his front leg to pitch.

“It hurt bad enough that I tried different landing spots to try to ease the pain.”

Never good.

“My hip was bothering me so much I couldn’t concentrate on my pitches.”

Even worse.

And it showed.

[MORE WHITE SOX: Chris Sale again shows why he's an ace]

The White Sox opened the 2014 season against the Minnesota Twins. Jones appeared in two games, he faced five batters and gave up four runs without recording a single out.

Afterwards, he went to Robin Ventura and trainer Herm Schneider and uttered the words no athlete ever wants to say:

“I can’t do it anymore.”

Jones had cost the White Sox one game, almost two.

“I gutted it out as long as I could and realized I was to the point of hurting the team instead of helping,” Jones said.

It turns out that White Sox right-hander had suffered a back injury that was causing the pain in his hip. He would undergo a discectomy procedure on his back, which involved shaving part of the disk material that was pressing on a nerve.

However, this injury ended up being a minor detour. What came next sent Jones’ recovery off a cliff.

While ramping up his throwing program in July, Jones started feeling a burning sensation in his right forearm. He didn’t think it was serious.

He was in for a heartbreaking surprise.

After having an MRI, Jones met with White Sox team doctor Charles Bush-Joseph at U-S Cellular Field. There, Jones was given the shocking news: He tore an ulnar collateral ligament in his elbow and needed Tommy John surgery.

“Are you sure?” he asked the doctor.

Bush-Joseph took out the MRI and showed Jones the tear in his elbow.

“I was crushed,” he said.

But Jones composed himself, went to general manager Rick Hahn, and actually apologized to Hahn for getting hurt.

“It was my arm, so I figured it was my fault,” Jones said. “I wanted to be there for the team.”

For the next 12 months, there would be no team for Jones. He was on an island by himself, starting at ground zero.

Was he worried that he might never be the pitcher he used to be?


Was he afraid that he might have pitched his last major league game?

“Yeah, absolutely.”

It was a brutal reality for someone whose job in life is to pitch. Coming to grips with that in the beginning was the worst part.

“Because they took away something that you've done every day of your life just about, and that's throw a baseball,” Jones said. “So for the first four or five months where I couldn’t throw at all, that was pretty tough mentally to get through it.”

But this past June came the first big breakthrough.

While throwing a simulated game at the White Sox spring training facility in Arizona, Jones could feel something in his arm — and he could see something in the hitters’ faces.

“I started to see their reaction [to my pitches],” he said with a smile. “And they got the radar gun out to see where it was at.”

His fastballs had clocked in at 98, 99, and 100.

“So I said, ‘Alright, I can do this. This is going to happen. I can get back to where I was.’”

And Sunday, there was Jones entering the game in relief of Chris Sale in front of a packed house at U.S. Cellular Field.

“It was the best crowd I’ve ever played in front of,” he said.

Kyle Schwarber, Dexter Fowler and Chris Coghlan all came to the plate. Jones struck all of them out.

[RELATED - White Sox pitchers set club mark with 18 Ks in nine innings]

Catcher Tyler Flowers has had the best view of Jones’ pitches, and he thinks he might actually be better than he was before.

“The guy is throwing sliders 92, 93 [miles per hour]. That’s the best I’ve seen out of him,” Flowers said. “He even threw a little curveball at 83, a little 12-to-6. That’s another weapon we can use later on.”

Since being back with the White Sox, Jones has given up just one hit in 4.1 innings with seven strikeouts and no walks. He’s impressed everybody in the clubhouse, including the star of Sunday’s victory.

“I love watching him pitch. I’ve said that for a while now,” Chris Sale said about Jones. “Seeing the obstacles he’s had to come over and the way he has handled it the whole time, he has never deviated from the script. He put his head down and he worked hard. What he’s gone through, a lot of people could get down. But it’s fun watching him pitch. You appreciate it a little bit more when it comes from him because of what he’s done and how he’s done it.”

If there’s a player in the major leagues who’s soaking in the moment more than Nate Jones right now, I’d like to meet him. Although I doubt that person exists.

Two surgeries, out for 16 months, and now he’s back.

“It makes me feel a sense of accomplishment," he said. "After all I went through, the surgeries, the rehabs, the bullpens. Looking back, it was all worth it.”

White Sox name James Shields as Opening Day starter

White Sox name James Shields as Opening Day starter

The White Sox have announced who will toe the rubber when the season begins later this month.

As expected, James Shields will be the team's Opening Day starting pitcher when the White Sox kick off the 2018 campaign against the Kansas City Royals on March 29 at Kauffman Stadium.

The starting rotation's elder statesman at 36, Shields seemed the logical pick for the first start of the season.

It's been a rough go for the one-time All Star since he came to the South Side in a trade with the San Diego Padres in the summer of 2016. In two seasons with the White Sox, he's got a 5.99 ERA with 181 strikeouts and 58 home runs allowed in 231.1 innings. Last season, he made 21 starts, finishing with a 5.23 ERA and 103 strikeouts and 27 home runs allowed in 117 innings.

While that trade still smarts considering the player the White Sox gave up, Fernando Tatis Jr., is currently ranked as the No. 8 prospect in baseball, Shields brings plenty of value to the 2018 rotation as a veteran mentor for young major leaguers like Lucas Giolito and Reynaldo Lopez, as well as pitchers making their way to the big leagues like Michael Kopech, Alec Hansen and Dylan Cease.

If Shields could rediscover some of the magic that made him a great pitcher during his best years with the Tampa Bay Rays and the aforementioned Royals, with whom he made World Series trips in 2008 and 2014, respectively, and have a strong couple months out of the chute, he could provide Rick Hahn's front office with a midseason trade piece, someone who could potentially fetch a prospect or two that could help advance the franchise's rebuilding efforts.

The Royals have announced that it will be Danny Duffy opposing Shields on Opening Day.

White Sox opposition research: What's there to know about the Houston Astros?


White Sox opposition research: What's there to know about the Houston Astros?

What’s there to know about the Houston Astros?

They’re the best, that’s what there is to know.

The Astros are the defending world champions for a multitude of reasons, and it’s all those and more that will have them as a favorite to repeat in 2018. Yes, the Cubs and New York Yankees and Los Angeles Dodgers and Cleveland Indians will all have something to say about that. But right now, no team is better on paper than the team the just won the big enchilada not five months ago.

The best 1-2 starting-pitching in combo in baseball? It belongs to the Astros. Justin Verlander was sensational for them after coming over in a late-summer trade with the Detroit Tigers. All he did was post a 1.06 ERA in five regular-season starts and a 2.21 ERA in six postseason outings. Justin Verlander. Again. And then there’s his running mate Dallas Keuchel — who doesn’t like the Cubs very much, apparently — has been just as good. He had a 2.90 ERA last year and won the American League Cy Young in 2015 with a 2.48 ERA and 20 wins.

Get past those guys and you’ll have to face the new guy. Gerrit Cole is now an Astro, as well, the reigning champs bolstering their already excellent rotation by importing one of the National League’s best pitchers. Cole saw his numbers jump last year (4.26 ERA) but still almost had 200 strikeouts and now has a much better roster around him than the one he left in Pittsburgh.

Charlie Morton? He threw four one-run innings in Game 7 of the World Series. Lance McCullers? He had 2.1 shutout innings in Game 7 of the World Series. This rotation is a force that could mow down the AL. There are questions, sure, but this five is entering 2018 as the best collection of arms in the Junior Circuit.

And we haven’t even gotten to the hitting. Oh, the hitting! The Astros scored 34 runs in seven World Series games. They banged out 56 hits. They hit 15 home runs. This after they were baseball’s best offense during the regular season.

The names are obvious to anyone who watched the postseason. Jose Altuve, surely tired of all the short jokes, is arguably the best player in baseball, and he won the AL MVP last season with a ridiculous .346/.410/.547 slash line. Carlos Correa, perhaps baseball’s best young shortstop, had a .315/.391/.550 slash line. George Springer, your World Series MVP, hit 34 regular-season home runs and got on base at a .367 clip before hitting five homers and slashing .379/.471/.1.000 in the Fall Classic.

Then there’s Alex Bregman and Josh Reddick and Marwin Gonzalez, who were all very good to great in 2017. They shouldn’t all be expected to do what they did last season — you need look no further than the Cubs to see what a deep World Series run can do to a team, especially early. But is there a better lineup than this in the AL? Anyone? Bueller?

It’s hard to repeat, and “hard” is becoming one heck of an understatement considering no one’s repeated in almost two decades. The Yankees last did it when they beat the broken-bat-throwing Mike Piazza and the New York Mets in the 2000 World Series. Since then, no one’s done it twice in a row.

Last year, most of us looked at the Cubs and said, “They have the best team, they are favorites to do it again.” And then they were not even in first place in the NL Central at the All-Star break. A similar fate could await the Astros. But right now, they look like the best team the AL has to offer.

Houston, you are clear for takeoff ... again.

2017 record: 101-61, first place in AL West, World Series champions

Offseason additions: Gerrit Cole, , Joe Smith, Hector Rondon

Offseason departures: Carlos Beltran, Cameron Maybin, Mike Fiers, Tyler Clippard, Luke Gregerson, Francisco Liriano

X-factor: The Astros now count one-time Cubs closer Hector Rondon among their relievers now, but the X-factor pick here is Bregman. After a fine but nothing special first half, he was one of baseball's best after the All-Star break last year, slashing .315/.367/.536 with 11 homers and 44 RBIs in 71 games in the second half.

Projected lineup:

1. George Springer, CF
2. Alex Bregman, 3B
3. Jose Altuve, 2B
4. Carlos Correa, SS
5. Josh Reddick, RF
6. Marwin Gonzalez, 1B
7. Brian McCann, C
8. Evan Gattis, DH
9. Derek Fisher, LF

Projected rotation:

1. Justin Verlander
2. Dallas Keuchel
3. Gerrit Cole
4. Lance McCullers
5. Charlie Morton

Prediction: First place in AL West

Catch up on the AL:

Oakland Athletics
Texas Rangers
Seattle Mariners
Los Angeles Angels
Houston Astros

Catch up on the NL:

San Diego Padres
Colorado Rockies
Arizona Diamondbacks
San Francisco Giants