White Sox

Zach Duke's 'El Duque'-esque great escape earns White Sox much-needed win

Zach Duke's 'El Duque'-esque great escape earns White Sox much-needed win

BOSTON — Instead of Jason Varitek, Tony Graffanino and Johnny Damon, it was Dustin Pedroia, Christian Vasquez and Ryan LaMarre. 

Zach Duke’s miraculous escape of a bases loaded, nobody-out jam — which was reminiscent of Orlando “El Duque” Hernandez’s landmark relief appearance here in Game 3 of the 2005 American League Division Series — set up Jose Abreu’s game-winning two-run double to earn the White Sox a 3-1 win over the Boston Red Sox Monday night at Fenway Park. 

When Duke entered the game — which came after Zach Putnam walked the bases loaded to begin the ninth — the Red Sox had a 93.8 percent chance of winning, according to FanGraphs’ win expectancy. 

“It was a little bit stressful,” Duke said. “But those are the moments we live for as players. To be able to be handed the ball in that situation and get the job done, that’s what we live for.”

Dustin Pedroia was the first challenger against Duke, with the former MVP being called upon to pinch hit for left-handed third baseman Travis Shaw. After getting strike one with a fastball out over the plate, Duke pounded Pedroia inside with his low-80s slider and mid-70s curveball. He missed with one, but Pedroia pulled three breaking balls foul — which was exactly the plan. 

With Pedroia having to protect a two-strike count against that barrage of inside breaking balls, Duke went back to his fastball. He missed low and away with his first one, then blew Pedroia away with No. 2 for the first out. 

“He made some really good pitches with his breaking ball in to him where if he was going to make solid contact it was going to go foul, like he did a couple of times,” catcher Alex Avila said. “Zach has those two different types of breaking balls where it can be a little harder and slower, and when you’re seeing as many as Pedroia did, the two fastballs you could tell he was late on protecting against the breaking ball as well. Good sequence on his part.”

Next up was light-hitting catcher Christian Vasquez, with the Red Sox win expectancy still at a healthy 83.6 percent. Duke didn’t throw a single pitch in the strike zone during this at-bat, with Vasquez letting two balls go but chasing two out of the zone for foul balls. The 2-2 offering was a 77 mile per hour curveball low and away, which Vasquez softly chopped up the middle. 

Tyler Saladino — who was brought on as a fifth infielder after Putnam loaded the bases — was standing right there to field it, but the usually sure-handed infielder fired low toward home plate. Avila made an outstanding play, keeping his right foot on the base while successfully cradling the ball in his glove. If he had bobbled it or not fielded it cleanly, it would’ve been game over. 

“That was an unreal play,” Duke said. “I don’t know how he caught that ball. I had a perfect view of it. As soon as it left Sally’s hand, I was going, ‘Nooooo,’ but then he came up with it. 

“And I said from that point on I’m going to get this next guy.”

The next guy was pinch hitter Ryan LaMarre, and Duke followed through on his personal prediction (the Red Sox win expectancy dropped to 66 percent after Vasquez’s groundout). This was a dominant at-bat from Duke — LaMarre fouled off a first-pitch fastball, then swung at two of three breaking balls low and inside for an inning-ending strikeout. 

Duke let out two primal screams as he strutted off the mound. 

“You bring him in that situation and you’re hoping for the best,” manager Robin Ventura said. 

What Duke did was exactly that best-case scenario, however unlikely it was. The White Sox were 90 feet away from losing their third game in four days in walk-off fashion only a few hours after general manager Rick Hahn fielded questions about Ventura’s job status. For a team that’s been stuck in a bad way for about a month and a half, Duke’s spectacular escape was a much-needed reversal of fortune. 

Whether the ninth inning — and Jose Abreu’s game-winning, two-run double in the 10th — result in the White Sox turning things around for good after losing 26 of their previous 36 games heading into Boston remains to be seen. But thanks to Zach “Duque” (he had a laugh at all those plays on his and Hernandez’s name that were all over social media), the White Sox were able to celebrate instead of wallow on Monday night.

“For us, it’s hard to win one game, sometimes,” Ventura said. “It took a game a game as odd as this one to do it and it shows something about the toughness of the guys we have in here.”

Five things all White Sox fans should be paying attention to in the second half

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USA TODAY

Five things all White Sox fans should be paying attention to in the second half

The White Sox staging a second-half surge and vaulting into the playoff race seems … unlikely.

This season was always going to be about rebuilding and development at every level of the organization, so while the team’s 33-62 record at the dawn of the second half can certainly qualify as disappointing, it shouldn’t count as completely surprising.

But with the unique opportunity to watch the future of the franchise develop right before their eyes, South Side baseball fans still have reasons to pay attention to what happens over the team’s final 67 games. Here are five of those reasons.

1. Will the real Yoan Moncada please stand up?

The first-to-arrive star of this rebuilding process has had a streaky go of things in his first full season of big league baseball. He started cold, got hot, hit the disabled list, got really cold and finished the first half on a two-week tear that saw him slash .356/.453/.644 over his final 12 games heading into the break. There were seven extra-base hits, seven RBIs, eight walks and 11 runs scored in that span, too.

So which Moncada is the Moncada the White Sox are going to get in the second half?

This guy’s got huge expectations after being dubbed the No. 1 prospect in baseball last season, and he won’t be the last White Sox prospect to graduate to the majors and then have his every action on the field picked apart. Fair or unfair, that’s life for Moncada until he can produce consistently. But he might be about to do just that.

What he needs to clean up is the abundance of strikeouts — his 130 of them are just two off the big league leaders — and his mistakes in the field, where he ranks third in baseball with 15 fielding errors, the most among second basemen. Are those developmental growing pains or will Moncada be the kind of player who hits really well, strikes out a lot and makes a lot of errors? It’s worth watching the rest of the season to answer that question.

2. When Michael Kopech and Eloy Jimenez come up, you’ll want to be there

Perhaps the biggest question entering the 2018 season was when the White Sox would promote their two highest-rated prospects to the major league roster. The answer to that question is a lot more complicated than it was back in spring training, but there’s still a good chance of seeing both of these guys on the South Side before time runs out on the regular season.

Kopech has had a tough season at Triple-A Charlotte, nothing that’s mirrored the breeziness with which he dominated the Double-A level in 2017, when he punched out 155 batters in 22 starts. The strikeouts are still there this year — he’s got 131 of them in 19 starts — but he’s walking a lot of guys and has had some bad outings when it comes to runs allowed. All in all, it’s left him with 58 walks and a 4.29 ERA at this point in Charlotte’s season.

From a results perspective, things have gotten better of late. He’s got a 2.53 ERA in his last six starts, a 2.33 ERA in his last five, and he rebounded from a four-walk, four-run, three-inning outing with two gems, giving up a combined two earned runs, walking only two and striking out 20 hitters in his two most recent starts.

Of course, Rick Hahn has suggested all along that results do not necessarily translate to big league readiness and that the White Sox are waiting for Kopech to show them specific things to earn his ticket to the majors. Has that happened yet? One would figure that if it had happened, Kopech would be here by now. Still, a full season in Triple-A, working through issues and pitching to a different type of hitter than he saw last season in Double-A would figure to yield at least a September promotion for one of the game’s top pitching prospects.

Jimenez looks more likely to move through Triple-A at a good clip, however injuries have limited his at-bats this season, and he’s only got 269 of them on the season between Double-A and Triple-A. He’s played in just 17 games at Charlotte, recently returned from a stay on the disabled list.

But he’s undoubtedly swung an impressive bat at both levels. He got promoted after slashing .317/.368/.556 with 10 homers and 42 RBIs in 70 games at Birmingham. He’s got a .297/.357/.484 line at Charlotte with three homers and seven RBIs in those 17 games.

Again, the box scores aren’t the only thing the White Sox are looking for, and Hahn has talked about the importance of getting Jimenez at-bats at the Triple-A level. But if he keeps raking, Jimenez would figure to see some big league time prior to season’s end.

3. Deadline (and beyond) deals

Hahn has already said he expects a quieter trade deadline for the White Sox this summer after what happened a season ago, when he dealt away a good chunk of the roster including much of a high-performing bullpen.

It’s not difficult to see why he thinks that, considering the team — a year further along into its rebuilding effort — simply doesn’t have as many tradeable or desirable assets on the major league roster.

That’s not to say there’s nothing to trade away, though, and be it prior to the end of this month or in a waiver deal prior to the end of next month, it’s worth seeing what the White Sox can get for the likes of James Shields, Joakim Soria and middle relievers like Luis Avilan and Xavier Cedeno. None of those guys figure to command the kind of returns Hahn got a year ago in the seven-player swap with the New York Yankees or the crosstown trade with the Cubs.

Look, perhaps, to the trades that sent Anthony Swarzak, Melky Cabrera and Dan Jennings out of town as a better predictor. Those kinds of returns — Ryan Cordell, A.J. Puckett and Casey Gillaspie — might not excite the imaginations of fans and observers. But rebuilds are full of surprises, and anything that Hahn could get has the potential to have an impact on the White Sox future.

Need proof? Look at the August trade that sent Miguel Gonzalez to the Texas Rangers. The return piece in that deal, the not-very-heralded Ti’Quan Forbes, is having a nice season at Class A Winston-Salem this season.

4. The next steps for Lucas Giolito and Reynaldo Lopez

After Moncada, the major league players whose developments are most important for the future of this team are Giolito and Lopez, two potential pieces of the rotation of the future. The competition for spots in that rotation figures to be steep with all the pitching prospects still developing in the minors. But Giolito and Lopez can give themselves an upper hand with strong performances to finish out this season.

Giolito has struggled during much of the campaign. He’s still the American League leader in walks, with 60 of them in his 19 starts. He’s still got an ugly 6.18 ERA, thanks in large part to three outings with at least seven earned runs allowed. But there have been flashes of brilliance, too, some very recently. Giolito’s final two starts to close out the first half were good ones. He combined to allow two earned runs on just five hits over 13.2 innings. Without a doubt, his best back-to-back performances of the season.

Giolito’s had good starts before, only to follow them up with not-as-good ones. And he’s walked at least three batters in each of his last four starts. But Giolito’s confidence has seemingly never waned throughout this trying campaign. If he can build off how he closed out the first half as the second half starts, he’ll be looking more like the guy who impressed so much during the final month of last season and during spring training earlier this year.

Lopez, meanwhile, was perhaps the pitching highlight of the first half for the White Sox, though even he owns an ERA close to 4.00. That number has climbed steadily since his remarkable start to the campaign: He had a 4.87 ERA over his final 12 starts after owning a 2.44 number after his first seven.

Lopez has seemed more capable of righting the ship, for the most part, than Giolito this season. But it’s not crazy to suggest that both guys could be in for big second halves after going through their respective growing pains over the seasons first three and a half months. The prospects are coming, though, and they’ll need to step up their games if they want to claim a spot in that rotation of the future.

5. Who will be this year’s Nicky Delmonico?

Delmonico joined the White Sox on Aug. 1 of last season, and by last winter he had some eager White Sox fans penciling his name into their 2020 lineup projections. That’s thanks to how impressive he was over the final two months of 2017, when he posted a .373 on-base percentage with nine homers and 23 RBIs in just 43 games.

Delmonico’s luck hasn’t been as good this season. In addition to failing to replicate those numbers in the season’s early going, a broken hand has kept him out for all but 37 games. But the idea of someone unexpected coming up and surprising is still alive. Who could that be this season?

Daniel Palka’s tried his hardest to be that guy. Though he’ll have close to a full season under his belt by the time October rolls around, he’s done some things that could warrant future consideration with 24 extra-base hits in 65 games. His averages aren’t close to as high as Delmonico’s were in his limited time last season, but he’s obviously got some pop.

How about Delmonico again? Fans have perhaps soured on his future prospects in the White Sox outfield after his slow start — and with Jimenez, Luis Robert and Micker Adolfo on the way — but Delmonico has returned from his stay on the disabled list and like Avisail Garcia did earlier this year, he could return with a bang.

The aforementioned Cordell seemed a candidate for this title earlier this season, though he’s been dealing with his own injury woes.

Certainly there will be surprises, though. That’s how baseball seasons and rebuilding efforts work. And if you’re paying attention, you’ll almost surely have an unexpected name to talk about this offseason.

Michael Kopech electric in start vs. Pawtucket

Michael Kopech electric in start vs. Pawtucket

The Charlotte Knights took on the Pawtucket Red Sox on Thursday night in a high-profile minor league game due to White Sox No. 2 prospect Michael Kopech being on the mound. 

Kopech, the 22-yearold old flame throwing right-hander, has been collecting impressive strikeout totals but has struggled with his control. He had issued 15 walks over his last five starts, and prior to Thursday's game his ERA was 4.48. But Kopech shined in all facets against Pawtucket.

In six innings of work, Kopech allowed one earned run on seven hits, and had nine strikeouts. But the most important part of his game was that fact that he only issued one walk in the start.

Prior to Thursday's game, Kopech had 122 strikeouts and 57 walks over 88.1 innings pitched. If he continues to cut down his walks he will become a very efficient pitcher in the future. 

But the performance is important in the context of the White Sox losing season, as a lack of control is perhaps the last thing holding Kopech back from being able to make his major league debut.