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.”

Daily White Sox prospects update: Zack Collins hits a pair of homers

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NBC SPORTS CHICAGO

Daily White Sox prospects update: Zack Collins hits a pair of homers

Here's your daily update on what the White Sox highly touted prospects are doing in the minor leagues.

Double-A Birmingham

Zack Collins hit two home runs as part of a three-hit day. He drove in two runs, scored two runs and walked once in a 10-4 loss. Collins now has seven homers on the campaign with an ungodly .421 on-base percentage. He's batting .326 over his last 25 games. Eloy Jimenez had two hits and a walk, and Jordan Guerrero gave up four runs and walked five in four innings.

Class A Winston-Salem

The Dash lost both games of a doubleheader, 10-5 and 7-0. Luis Alexander Basabe, Alex Call and Gavin Sheets each picked up two hits on the day.

Triple-A Charlotte

Charlie Tilson had a hit and scored a run in a 2-1 loss.

Class A Kannapolis

Luis Gonzalez had a hit in a 2-1 win.

Reynaldo Lopez is changing his place in the White Sox rebuild: 'When I'm on the mound, I'm the best and I don't care about the rest'

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USA TODAY

Reynaldo Lopez is changing his place in the White Sox rebuild: 'When I'm on the mound, I'm the best and I don't care about the rest'

Rebuilds are full of surprises.

Fans can pencil in any names they want into their 2020 lineups, but there’s almost no one who’s going to have a 100-percent success rate when it comes to predicting exactly what the next contending White Sox team will look like.

Reynaldo Lopez carried plenty of hype when he was acquired from the Washington Nationals in the Adam Eaton deal prior following the 2016 season. He had a high prospect ranking before he was called up last summer. He hasn’t materialized out of nowhere.

But with names like Lucas Giolito, Michael Kopech, Alec Hansen, Carlos Rodon and others to compete with for one of those coveted rotation spots of the future, was anyone going to use the term “ace” to describe Lopez?

Well, in this rebuilding season’s most pleasant surprise for the White Sox and their fans, that’s exactly what Lopez has been. He’s been hands down the team’s best starting pitcher, and he’s making the case that he shouldn’t be considered an ancillary piece in this rebuilding process but a featured one.

He might not be getting the attention that others are. But he’s doing the most with his opportunity of being at the big league level right now. In the end, as long as you’re getting batters out, who cares how much attention you get?

“It’s not about what people say or what they are talking about,” Lopez said through a translator. “It’s about the confidence I have in myself, and I have plenty of confidence in myself. For me, I’m the best. I’m not saying the other guys are not. I’m just saying that’s the confidence I have. When I’m on the mound, I’m the best and I don’t care about the rest.”

Sunday marked the best start of Lopez’s young career, so said the pitcher himself. He was terrific in shutting down the visiting Texas Rangers, holding them to just two hits over eight scoreless innings.

It was one heck of a bounce-back performance considering what happened last time out, when he was roughed up for six runs in just two innings against the Pittsburgh Pirates.

The difference? His attitude, his focus, his intensity, his conviction.

“I just changed my attitude in the game,” Lopez said. “I was more positive today than I was in my last outing and that was one of my biggest differences.”

“I do think he came out a little bit more focused, to be honest,” manager Rick Renteria said. “The intensity level was a little higher today. I think he threw the first couple pitches 97, 98 miles an hour, where his last outing they were at 93, 94. There wasn’t a whole lot of commitment or conviction to his pitches (against the Pirates). I think, as we talked after the last outing, (pitching coach Don Cooper) spoke to him a little about making sure he brought that intensity that he has the ability to do, to bring it from Pitch 1 and he did today.”

Renteria liked it all, and he saw something different in his pitcher when he went out to talk to him with two outs in the eighth. Lopez issued a two-out walk, and Renteria considered lifting Lopez from the game.

Lopez made sure his manager wouldn’t pull the plug on this outing.

“I hid the baseball in my glove because I didn’t want to leave the game,” Lopez said. “I asked me, ‘How are you? Are you good?’ And I told him, ‘Yes, I’m good.’ Then he asked me again, ‘Do you think you are able to get him out?’ And I said yes, ‘This is my game, and I’m going to finish it.’”

What did Lopez do with his extra life? He finished it all right, blowing Shin-Soo Choo away with a 96-mile-an-hour fastball. Then he showed as much emotion as he’s ever shown on a major league field. He earned that celebration.

“When you see your manager come out and you’ve already gone through most of your game in terms of what you might think you have in number of pitches available to you, and you reiterate that you want to finish a particular batter because you want to get out of that inning, and you do it, it's an accomplishment,” Renteria said. “It's a big accomplishment. For him, pretty good hitter. He battled him and he was able to get out of that inning and complete a very, very strong eight-inning outing.”

It’s the kind of exclamation point on a dominant afternoon that could stir some big plans in White Sox fans always dreaming of the future. What Lopez has done this season has been a strong case for a spot in that future rotation and a spot at the front of it, at that. Following Sunday’s gem, Lopez owns a 2.98 ERA with at least six strikeouts in four of his nine starts.

There’s a lot of development and a lot of time left before the White Sox contention window opens. But Lopez pitching like this offers a glimpse into the crystal ball, a look at what could be for an organization that’s acquired so much talent over the last two years.

You might not have seen it coming like this, but the future arriving in the form of Lopez is a sign that brighter days are ahead on the South Side.