Omar Narvaez

Why Rick Renteria would be OK with bringing back current, young White Sox catchers

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Why Rick Renteria would be OK with bringing back current, young White Sox catchers

CLEVELAND -- His young catchers have made enough gains this season with game calling that Rick Renteria isn’t sure if he’d want to add a veteran backstop for 2018.

The White Sox intended for veteran Geovany Soto to be their primary catcher this season with Omar Narvaez serving as his backup. Consecutive elbow injuries for Soto wiped those plans out early in the season and forced the White Sox to employ Narvaez and rookie Kevan Smith, who collectively had almost no big-league experience. But after nearly a full season of learning the league, Renteria said he’s on board if the White Sox decide to bring back Smith and Narvaez again in 2018.

“I would not be uncomfortable taking these same two guys again in the coming year and allow them to continue to grow with those guys that we have because they’ve actually gained some ground in understand what they’re doing,” Renteria said. “Might as well not waste this thing that we’ve been able to gain because of what’s occurred over this season.”

Narvaez entered the season with 34 career games played, including 30 starts. Smith had six games behind the plate with three starts. The loss of Soto to elbow surgery in May put the White Sox in a difficult spot.

“It’s very tough because we play 162 games and these guys have to learn,” bullpen catcher Mark Salas said. “Granted, we play them three in a row, maybe four, and you try to learn the guys. But it’s easier with the Central guys because we play them so much. But Anaheim, we haven’t played them in three months and it’s a process going over them again and getting the feel, seeing what they’ve got and go with that.”

The process has many facets for the young catchers to decipher.

Smith and Narvaez must be totally familiar with their own pitchers and their strengths and weaknesses. Then comes preparation for each opposing hitter and knowing their strengths and weaknesses. The catchers, pitching coach Don Cooper and the pitchers then overlay the two sides to provide a rough game plan. But even then, other factors must be considered, including how that day’s pitcher is throwing.

Smith mentioned that one advantage of game-calling in the majors versus the minors is the consistency of the lineup.

“When you start seeing these teams over and over it’s not like the minor leagues where it might be a new team the next time you face them just because of callups or guys getting sent down,” Smith said. “You can kind of start predetermining a game plan with the guys you’re going to catch against that series and kind of seeing how those guys strengths match up against (hitters) weaknesses. It just puts your mind at ease a little bit and lets you go out and play and kind of slows the game down for you.”

A season’s worth of learning has considerably helped both Narvaez and Smith. Soto has aided the process when he could, specifically being available on the bench at the majority of the team’s home games for counsel. James Shields and Mike Pelfrey have also offered the input only a veteran pitcher can supply.

Salas is hopeful that next season Cooper would feel comfortable enough to allow either catcher to lead a pregame meeting as the White Sox discuss their strategy. Given how Renteria feels, it wouldn’t be a surprise.

“What these two have done over the last three-and-a-half, four months is actually on-the-job training,” Renteria said. “The biggest thing is how they’re going to be able to take a young staff in certain situations and get better and understand how to make adjustments.

“That’s been a huge gain for us.”

Cool as a cucumber, Reynaldo Lopez stayed calm to pick up his first White Sox win

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Cool as a cucumber, Reynaldo Lopez stayed calm to pick up his first White Sox win

KANSAS CITY, Mo. — The Kauffman Stadium crowd was fired up in the fifth inning Monday night, the enthusiasm of Royals fans growing with each hit.

The momentum built every time Kansas City scored as the Royals quickly closed the gap from five runs to two. But even as the chaos continued around him, White Sox rookie Reynaldo Lopez was the picture of calm on the mound.

Since he arrived in the big leagues last month, the White Sox have noticed their prized pitching prospect is unflappable when it comes to big moments. When everyone else’s pulse is increasing, Lopez is cool as a cucumber, trying to figure out how to escape the jam he’s in. The belief is that this poise displayed by Lopez — who earned his first White Sox victory with six-plus strong innings on Monday — will pay great dividends as he makes his way through the American League for the first time.

“He’s truly very focused on what his game plan is and how he’s going to attack hitters,” manager Rick Renteria said. “I think he does trust his stuff. I think he’s very self-critical, you can see it after a walk when he comes into the dugout. He’s upset with himself for not having executed certain things. But he keeps it under control understanding in his head what he’s going to do next time in that particular situation. The demeanor is very poised for a person of his age.”

While it doesn’t have the same rock concert-type atmosphere as Dodger Stadium, Kauffman is no joke when the crowd gets going. The White Sox have seen the park’s effect many times in recent years, notably in last season’s Memorial Day Weekend meltdown. One hit gets the boisterous crowd going, and before you know it an avalanche of noise is headed your way.

Lopez got his first taste in the fifth as his five-run lead nearly evaporated.

Brandon Moss blasted a solo homer to make it a 5-1 game. Kauffman then started to buzz when Alex Gordon singled with one out and the volume increased substantially when Whit Merrifield hit a run-scoring triple. Merrifield’s hit brought Don Cooper to the mound for a visit and yet even that didn’t stop the bleeding as Lorenzo Cain followed with a run-scoring single.

As much as the situation seemed to be getting out of hand, Lopez didn’t rattle. He instead made a quick adjustment and retired Melky Cabrera and Eric Hosmer to escape with the two-run lead.

“It gets pretty loud,” catcher Omar Narvaez said. “But he’s the same guy. The only thing I saw was he was leaving the arm behind, which left the ball up. But he made the adjustment to come back and get everybody else.

“He’s just been the same guy, trying to attack the zone and make them swing. That’s why he’s effective because first of all he throws strikes and second he makes everybody swing. That’s the most important for a pitcher.”

Lopez followed with a six-run White Sox rally in the sixth with another important aspect of pitching — a quick inning. The right-hander bounced back from a lengthy fifth with a seven-pitch sixth inning. The quick frame kept Lopez’s pitch count down enough where the White Sox brought him back for the seventh inning on a hitter-by-hitter basis. Lopez allowed a leadoff single in the seventh and was pulled immediately, but would have continued on had he recorded an out.

“I just tried harder to keep my focus, to not lose my focus on the game in (the fifth inning),” Lopez said through an interpreter. “And I was able to do that, and that’s why I was able to get out of that situation.”

Renteria thinks it’s partly because of who Lopez is and in part because of his previous major league experience. The way Lopez has operated so far has impressed the White Sox manager.

“I do think one of things he does have is a tremendous confidence about him,” Renteria said. “He’s not an arrogant person. He’s a person that keeps it within and knows how to go out there and kind of control his emotions a little bit. He’s very good at doing it right now.”

How Geovany Soto has provided the White Sox with value while on the disabled list

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How Geovany Soto has provided the White Sox with value while on the disabled list

He might be missing in action to fans, but Geovany Soto has had a significant impact on the White Sox rookie catchers.

Potentially out for the season since May with an elbow injury, Soto has bucked a normal trend for most injured players with his constant presence at White Sox home games. He’s still uncertain, but Soto holds out hope he could play again during the 2017 season. Even if he doesn’t return, Soto has offered the young White Sox catchers plenty of value in an area they lack — experience.

“Everything,” catcher Omar Narvaez said. “The game plan. Throwing to second base. How to anticipate who’s going to run and the count they run in. How to support the pitcher, what moment to go to the mound. All that stuff. What moment we can throw the fastball in, things like that.

“Sometimes there are things I might not know, or he reinforces what I know.

“I can learn from it.”

Headed into this season, Narvaez and Kevan Smith had combined to play 41 major league games. While their collective inexperience wasn’t as much of an issue out of spring camp, it became one when Soto first hit the disabled list with a sore elbow in mid-April. Suddenly, the White Sox were relying upon two catchers with little knowledge of hitters around the league.

Soto returned 11 days later, but his stay was short-lived. He appeared in eight games before his elbow acted up again. Soto decided to have surgery that would keep him out a minimum of three months.

But he’s stuck around, which has been huge for Narvaez and Smith.

Soto said he made that choice because he remembers how valuable it was for him to be able to rely upon veteran catcher Henry Blanco early in his own career.

“I care about my guys, my catchers, my friends,” Soto said. “Henry Blanco took me under his wing, and I loved how that felt. He made me feel like I belonged from early in terms of all the struggles I went through with the defensive part of the game, calling the game, relationship with your pitchers, how to deal with the whole staff. I thought that really helped me as a major leaguer, and that’s all I’m trying to do.”

Whereas most injured players are around occasionally, Soto arrives at Guaranteed Rate Field early and stays late. He doesn’t travel with the team — injured players mostly only do unless they’re on the verge of returning. But Soto has made himself readily available while he rehabs at home.

“He’s there every home game,” Smith said. “He’s always there early. He’s always asking if we want to do extra things, kind of getting some insight. He’s been awesome. He’s almost been like a second catching coach.

“Just a guy you can turn to for advice more so on in-game situations like, ‘What’s the right thing to do here?’ ‘How about that pitch sequence — what were you thinking there?’ He’ll see us kind of peek over into the dugout a few times just to see what he’s thinking.”

Soto — who signed a minor league deal with the White Sox in January for $2 million — said his elbow is 100 percent after arthroscopic surgery but he’s still rehabbing. Even if he doesn’t come back in 2017, Soto intends to play next season, “100 percent.”

“I still have a lot of baseball in this body,” Soto said. “I feel like I’m 21.”

In the meantime, he will continue to impart the wisdom he’s gained over 13 seasons on anyone who asks. He enjoys the role, and though it hasn’t been fully considered, Soto said coaching is in the “realm” of future possibilities.

“We have great guys here,” Soto said. “The most important is they come up here and they want to learn and get with the program.

“We are here to help them, guide them and let them know what they are probably going to see out there that we’ve seen before.”

Narvaez said Soto’s presence has been invaluable. Smith said he and Narvaez love having a veteran player around to increase their knowledge — the kinds of things Soto once asked of Blanco when they played together with the Cubs.

“I ask him a lot of questions on preparation and his first year, what he learned from it and how he got through it,” Smith said. “He’s been a solid guy, especially for being hurt. It’s very easy for a guy that’s hurt to go into a little hole and kind of stick your head out once in a while away.

“These guys are filled with baseball knowledge. You can ask them about situations, what they thought, if we did it the right way, if we pitched it the right way. It’s funny because you’ll be sitting with them and you’re just enlightened.”