Saturday wasn’t Lucas Giolito’s best outing of the year, nor was it is longest, thanks to an extended bout of heavy rain that delayed the White Sox tilt with the Toronto Blue Jays almost three hours before it was finally called. But it was another good one, and Giolito’s status as the team’s most reliable starting pitcher remained intact.
It’s only been seven and a half months since Giolito finished his first full season in the major leagues as, statistically, baseball’s worst qualified starting pitcher. He led the game in ERA and WHIP. He led the American League in walks. It was a rough campaign that lasted as long as it did because the rebuilding White Sox were in a position to let their young players learn from their growing pains.
Well, a season later, Giolito seems to have learned plenty.
“I think he absorbed everything that happened last season, good and bad. I think it has played a huge role in his development and his growth,” manager Rick Renteria said before Saturday’s game. “I think he’s taken ahold and challenged himself and sought to look to improve and do things that are going to help him continue to evolve as a pitcher at the major league level.
“I think to this point he has shown that he has taken ahold of some of the changes that he’s gravitated to. But on top of that, the confidence, his mentality. He’s a pretty driven kid, pretty bright kid. I’m glad we have him on our side. I’m really looking forward to continuing to see him grow as a Chicago White Sox.”
Giolito lowered his season ERA to 3.35 with five innings of one-run ball Saturday, giving up just three hits and a pair of walks and technically recording his first career complete game, the franchise’s first since September 2016.
The most impressive moment came as the skies opened up and the goal seemed clear: make this an official game in case the rain meant no further baseball. Giolito, pitching in a monsoon, struck out the three batters he faced in the top of the fifth inning, accomplishing that goal in dominating fashion, even if the umpires and Blue Jays hitters might have had the same results in mind.
“Everyone was joking about that. They were like, 'Shower! Complete game!' I don't consider it a complete game until I get nine,” Giolito said after the game was called. “But I went out there for the fifth, saw the rain coming down, and I was like, 'All right, we've got to pick up the tempo a little bit.' Luckily, we were able to get through five and close it out there.
“The raindrops were so big that they were getting into my glove, on the ball, getting on my hand. So my approach was just to attack the strike zone with a fast pace and hopefully get a nice 1-2-3 inning, and that's what we did.”
Giolito’s logged three quality starts and could very well have two more had those outings not been shortened. In addition to Saturday’s rain-impacted affair, Giolito had to exit his April 17 start against the Kansas City Royals with a hamstring injury after just 2.2 innings.
Giolito’s been a different pitcher in 2019, taking a leap that has thrust him back into a conversation many fans and observers kicked him out of after how 2018 went. Once the top-rated pitching prospect in baseball, plenty of folks gave up on Giolito’s long-term status as a member of the White Sox rotation of the future. But he’s on the way to achieving the kind of consistency he struggled to find last season.
“I think he feels that everything he's doing right now is going to be able to lead him to have an opportunity to do what he wants on the mound,” Renteria said after the game. “He doesn't get flustered. He's very much under control in his emotions, all the things he was working to control last year. With the change of his arm swing, his ability to repeat and execute along with another year under his belt in the big leagues and being able to trust himself.”
While a physical change has been beneficial, Giolito gave plenty of credit to his mental approach this season, his different way of reacting to trouble and settling down in tight spots.
“Definitely the mental side,” he said. “Cleaning up a lot of things when it comes to my mind racing out there. I walked two batters in the fourth, and whereas last year that might get me going a little bit, might be rushing and trying to get out of it really fast, now I'll take my deep breath, reset, know what I can do and just execute.
“It's all in the breath. If things are starting to go a little bit haywire out there, I always go back to my breath. Step off the mound, take a big, deep breath, reset, forget about what happened, on to the next pitch.”
There’s a lot of baseball left to be played, of course, and just like one rough season in 2018 didn’t mark a definitive end of Giolito’s long-term prospects, a string of good starts early on in 2019 doesn’t mark a definitive return of them. But this is a very positive sign for a team with its focus on the future and a pleasant surprise for a fan base that watched plenty of bad starts from Giolito last season.
Ivan Nova struggling is different than some of the other White Sox pitchers struggling.
It seems pretty obvious that Nova, who the White Sox traded for over the offseason to be this year’s version of James Shields, isn’t in any danger of getting jettisoned from the starting rotation, like Ervin Santana was earlier this season. With the starting staff in the fragile state it’s in — perhaps turning to Ross Detwiler if necessary Monday night in Houston — the White Sox might even be rethinking that decision to move on from the Ervin Santana Experiment after just three starts.
Nova has certainly had his good moments, and he doesn’t deserve to have people marching toward him with torches and pitchforks any more than any other White Sox starter. Four of his nine starts this year have been quality starts, including the two prior to Friday’s. And just because some of the other results haven't been pretty, it doesn't mean he isn't having the desired effect inside the White Sox clubhouse as a positive influence on young pitchers.
But on the field, Friday was one of the bad ones. Nova gave up nine runs, eight of them earned, and lasted just three innings. Three of the eight hits he gave up to the Toronto Blue Jays, who entered with the worst offense in the American League, left the ballpark. Nova’s given up 10 home runs in his last five starts, which is obviously not good. To be fair, though, Shields gave up 34 homers last season and still got showered with praise for being an innings-eater and a mentor to the team’s young pitchers. That likely won't come as much comfort to White Sox fans.
“I didn't have command of my pitches,” Nova said after Friday's game. “Didn't throw my curveball for a strike. Threw a slider that didn't do nothing. Didn't command the changeup. I missed my command today. I was walking people, falling behind guys and paid the price.
"You never want to give up a lot of homers, obviously, that's how they do a lot of damage. You want to keep the ball in the park. It's off so far, but we continue to work on it."
Nova is earning much of the same ire being directed at every struggling White Sox starter by fans who see Dylan Cease putting up one quality start after another at Triple-A Charlotte and wonder why he can’t come to the South Side and take the place of guys who just aren’t performing.
Of course, as general manager Rick Hahn has said, a need for starting pitching at the big league level won’t have anything to do with when Cease makes his eventual major league debut later this season. But the frustration is understandable from this standpoint: Some of these starting pitchers have to get some outs.
Things have stabilized a bit lately, and a staff that had just one seven-inning effort for much of the season has gotten a few of them in recent weeks. Lucas Giolito is the team’s most reliable starting pitching at the moment, chasing away the demons of 2018, when he had the highest ERA in baseball. Reynaldo Lopez had an ERA north of 12.00 after his first three starts of the campaign but has chopped that in half since. Manny Banuelos went on the injured list Friday, a move plenty of fans on Twitter greeted with sarcasm that Banuelos — who has a 9.15 ERA as a starter this season — was no great loss for the rotation. With the organization’s starting-pitching depth what it is, that’s clearly not the case.
But Nova is different. He carried with him some expectations of the kind of performance the White Sox could expect coming into the 2019 season. In the three seasons prior to this one, Nova had a combined 4.16 ERA and averaged 170 innings a year. At the moment, Nova owns a 7.42 ERA and has averaged a little more than five innings an outing.
Shields didn’t always mow down opposing lineups, but the consistency of what he did deliver was invaluable in 2018. Nova was supposed to do more of the same. He hasn’t so far in 2019. If Nova can’t deliver on being an innings-eater, that’s troublesome for a pitching staff that’s been plagued in the season’s first month and a half by brief outings that have led to a taxed bullpen.
Given Nova’s veteran status, there’s more confidence, perhaps, that he can figure things out, that performances like Friday’s won’t be the norm for long. But so far, Nova’s been Jekyll and Hyde: really good when he’s on (a 1.38 ERA in his four good starts) and really not good when he isn’t (a 14.77 ERA in five tough starts).
"You would hope that they're capable of doing it quickly,” manager Rick Renteria said when asked how fast Nova might be able to right the ship. “But if a guy doesn't have it and you're trying to get him through working as deep as he can, even though his pitch count got up there. Obviously we've had a mixed bag, and today just wasn't one of his better days."
Those better days are going to have to start coming if the White Sox are going to get what they expected out of Nova. There’s no “growing pains” or “continued development” excuses for the veteran.