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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.”

As White Sox continue to pile up the strikeouts, Rick Renteria is taking the broad view

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USA TODAY

As White Sox continue to pile up the strikeouts, Rick Renteria is taking the broad view

White Sox third baseman Matt Davidson has in his mind an ideal number of times he’d strike out in a season.

“If I had it my way I’d probably strike out 20 times a year but I don’t know how you do that, really,” Davidson said before the Sox defeated the Royals 9-3 on Friday night at Guaranteed Rate Field.

It’s not realistic for an everyday player to go through the season with that few strikeouts, especially on a Sox team that entered Friday’s game with 1,163 of them, the second-highest total in the major-leagues behind the Rangers’ 1,168. The Sox were on pace to strike out 1,570 times, which would break the franchise record of 1,397 set last season.

Against the Royals, the Sox struck out seven times, but made more than enough contact—including three-run home runs from Jose Abreu and Nicky Delmonico—to win for the eighth time in their last 14 games.

With the Sox going through the trials and tribulations that come along with a radical rebuild, perhaps it’s not a surprise the team strikes out as much as it has the past two seasons. They are young, aggressive at the plate and still learning at the major-league level.

“It’s just some of the experience and learning your swing and trying to improve on it every single year,” said Davidson, who went 1-for-5 with three strikeouts Friday night. “I don’t think coming up (in the minors) everybody was striking out as much as we do here so that just shows that the competition is better and we’re just also trying to learn.

“The MLB (web site) has a section just showing how nasty pitches are,” Davidson added. “Guys are really good here. It’s just a part of learning. It’s about seeing the ball, learning the zone, learning counts and understanding when they’re going to throw stirkes and when they’re going to throw balls and also just putting the bat on the ball.”

The Sox were particularly susceptible to the strikeout when they fanned 10-plus times during an eight-game stretch from Aug. 5-13, a franchise record. They fell one game short of matching the dubious major-league record of nine consecutive games with 10-plus Ks set by the Brewers in 2017.

Sox manager Rick Renteria said the cause of all the strikeouts “depends on who you want to look at. You could look at it collectively (or) you can look at it individually. We have one of the young men (Yoan Moncada) who has quite a few under his belt, both looking and swinging (for a major-league leading 172 this season). Two-strike approach obviously is something we talk about a lot and still has to be implemented in practical terms so that it's useful. We don't want our guys swinging out of the zone. We do want them to be able to defend themselves and keep a ball in play possibly when need be.

“But I'm not thinking in regards of how (strikeouts) continue to mount and what that indicates or doesn't indicate,” Renteria added. “We look at all of our guys individually and figure out what it is we can help them with in terms of attacking that strike zone and being ready to hit.”

Rick Renteria still looking for 'a little better effort' from Avisail Garcia despite injury

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USA TODAY

Rick Renteria still looking for 'a little better effort' from Avisail Garcia despite injury

Rick Renteria proved once again that he won’t let his boys quit.

The White Sox manager pulled Avisail Garcia from Friday night’s 9-3 victory over the Royals after the outfielder failed to run hard out of the box during a first-inning flyout. It wasn’t the first time Renteria has made a point by pulling a player during a game. Garcia was yanked from a spring training contest for not running hard out of the box and Tim Anderson got the same treatment in July.

“I didn’t think (Garcia) had given me an effort on the Texas Leaguer,” Renteria said after Friday’s victory. “If the ball falls in, you have to possibly advance.”


Renteria was quick to point out that Garcia is playing with a right knee injury that the right fielder said would have to be addressed—likely with surgery—during the offseason.

“He does have a knee that’s bothering him a little bit,” Renteria said. “I told him, ‘you certainly looked like something was bothering you.’ He said, ‘I felt it click when I came out of the box.’ ‘I said you understand you can still give me a better effort out of the box (and) he said, ‘yes, I understand that. I’m feeling this.’ We addressed it a little bit. He’ll be back in there (Saturday night). He realizes he still feels he can give us a little better effort.”

Garcia, who has been on the disabled list twice this season due to hamstring injuries, said he understood Renteria’s decision. 

“I felt a click (in the knee) and I didn’t run,” Garcia said. “Even if I felt a click I can do a better effort if I want to play and I want to play. That’s why they take me out. I felt a click and I was a little bit scared about it but I’m OK.”

Renteria said it is important down the stretch to communicate with Garcia when it comes to managing his knee.

“That’s why we had the conversation,” Renteria said. “He doesn’t want to come out of the lineup. He says he can play every day, he says, ‘I can manage this, I can play through this, I’ll be fine.’ I said then give me a little more effort on some of those plays. I get it that you may feel it but if you feel it, just explain to me what’s going on and we can manage it that way. He really doesn’t want to come out. He wants to play.

“We’ve never had a problem with (Garcia),” Renteria added. “Despite a couple times here or there where we’ve taken him out, if you watch him he busts his rear end pretty much all the time. That was a rarity. At that particular point in time it was my decision to pull him out.”

Garcia said he will continue to play through the knee issue.

“I just have to keep going,” Garcia said. “But I was scared a little bit because I felt like a click. But at the same time, I didn’t run hard enough so I’m OK with it. I’m good to play.”

When asked if Garcia will get the knee taken care of following the season, he responded, “yeah, for sure. One-hundred percent.”