White Sox

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

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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?

Sure.

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.”

Lucas Giolito relieved to be able to shed No. 1 pitching prospect label

Lucas Giolito relieved to be able to shed No. 1 pitching prospect label

GLENDALE, AZ — You don’t need a scale to see that Lucas Giolito lost some weight in the offseason. As he walks around Camelback Ranch, he just seems lighter. These pounds were shedded thanks to a certain label that has been detached from his name and his being.

“Lucas Giolito, number-one pitching prospect in baseball” is no more.

“Definitely. Big time relief. I carried that title for a while,” Giolito told NBC Sports Chicago. “It was kind of up and down. I was (ranked) 1 at one point. I dropped. I always paid attention to it a little bit moving through the minor leagues.”

Which for any young hurler is risky business. The “best pitching prospect” designation can mess with a pitcher’s psyche and derail a promising career. Giolito was walking a mental tightrope reading those rankings, but after making it back to the majors last season with the White Sox and succeeding, the moniker that seemed to follow him wherever he went has now vanished.

“Looking back on it, that stuff is pretty cool," Giolito said. "It can pump you up and make you feel good about yourself, but in the end the question is, what are you going to do at the big league level? Can you contribute to a team? I’m glad that I finally have the opportunity to do that and all that other stuff is in the rear view."

This wasn’t the case when the White Sox acquired Giolito from the Washington Nationals in the Adam Eaton trade in December 2016. When he arrived at spring training last year, he was carrying around tons of extra baggage in his brain that was weighing him down. Questions about his ability and makeup weren’t helping as he tried living up to such high expectations.

“Yeah, I’d say especially with the trade coming off 2016 where I didn’t perform well at all that year," Giolito said. "I got traded over to a new organization, I still have this label on me of being a top pitching prospect while I’m going to a new place, I’m trying to impress people but at the same time I had a lot of things off mechanically I was trying to fix. Mentally, I was not in the best place as far as pitching went. It definitely added some extra pressure that I didn’t deal with well for a while."

How bad was it for Giolito? Here are some of the thoughts that were scrambling his brain during spring training and beyond last season.

“I saw I wasn’t throwing as hard. I was like, ’Where did my velocity go?’ Oh, it’s my mechanics. My mechanics are bad. I need to fix those,” Giolito said. “Then I’m trying to make adjustments. Why can’t I make this adjustment? It compounds. It just builds and builds and builds and can weigh on you a ton. I was 22 turning 23 later in the year. I didn’t handle it very well. I put a lot of pressure on myself to fix all these different things about my performance, my pitching and trying to do it all in one go instead of just relaxing and remembering, ‘Hey, what am I here for? Why do I play the game?’”

Still, pitching coach Don Cooper wanted to see what he had in his young prospect. So last February, he scheduled him to make his White Sox debut against the Cubs in front of a packed house in Mesa.

“It was kind of like a challenge," Giolito said. "They fill the stadium over there. I’m like, ‘Alright here we go."

Giolito gave up one run, three hits, walked one and struck out two in two innings against the Cubs that day.

“I pitched OK," he said. "I think I gave up a home run to Addison Russell. At the same time, I remember that game like I was forcing things. I might have pitched okay, but I was forcing the ball over the plate instead of relaxing, trusting and letting it happen which is kind of my mantra now. I’m saying that all the time, just having confidence in yourself and letting it go.”

A conversation in midseason with Charlotte Knights pitching coach Steve McCatty, suggested by Cooper, helped turn Giolito’s season around. The lesson for Giolito: whatever you have on the day you take the mound is what you have. Don’t force what isn’t there.

Fortunately for Giolito he has extra pitches in his arsenal, so if the curveball isn’t working (which it rarely did when he came up to the majors last season) he can go to his change-up, fastball, slider, etc.

It’s all part of the learning process, both on the mound and off it. Setbacks are coming. Giolito has already had his share. More will be on the way.

“You want to set expectations for yourself. You want to try and achieve great goals,” he said. “At the same time, it is a game of failure. There’s so much that you have to learn through experience whether that be success or failure. Especially going through the minor leagues. There’s so much that you have to learn and a lot of it is about development. It’s a crazy ride for sure.”

SportsTalk Live Podcast: Rick Hahn gives an update on the state of the White Sox rebuild

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USA TODAY

SportsTalk Live Podcast: Rick Hahn gives an update on the state of the White Sox rebuild

In this episode of the SportsTalk Live Podcast, Danny Parkins (670 The Score), Chris Bleck (ESPN 1000) and Scott King (WGN Radio) join David Kaplan on the panel.

Ryan Pace’s offseason begins. Josh Sitton and Jerrell Freeman are gone, but what will he do with Kyle Fuller?

Plus, Rick Hahn joins Kap from Glendale, Ariz., to discuss the state of the White Sox rebuild, how tough it is to keep their best prospects in the minors and why Jose Abreu is so important for his young team?

Listen to the full episode at this link or in the embedded player below: