Ivan Nova

Ivan Nova isn't going anywhere, but on the field, the White Sox aren't getting what they expected out of the veteran so far

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USA TODAY

Ivan Nova isn't going anywhere, but on the field, the White Sox aren't getting what they expected out of the veteran so far

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.

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Ivan Nova's seven-inning effort a much-needed stopper for White Sox pitching staff

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USA TODAY

Ivan Nova's seven-inning effort a much-needed stopper for White Sox pitching staff

Ivan Nova's 2019 season has not been what he or the White Sox or White Sox fans have wanted it to be so far.

But if he could just pitch in Cleveland every turn through the rotation, he'd be heading toward an All-Star appearance.

Prior to Monday night's series-opener against the Indians, there had been just one instance of a White Sox starting pitcher throwing seven innings. It was Nova way back on April 1 against these same Indians.

That stat is just one of multiple illustrations of the White Sox starting-pitching struggles this season. South Side starters owned a 6.74 ERA, the highest in the majors, coming into Monday night, and only two teams in the game (one of them the opener-using Tampa Bay Rays) had seen their starters log fewer innings. White Sox pitching allowed 30 runs in the previous three games, all losses to the Boston Red Sox.

Something needed to change. Nova, who entered with an 8.33 ERA, delivered. He turned in another seven innings of one-run ball, a throwback performance to the first week of the season that snapped the White Sox losing streak and produced the team's first quality start since Reynaldo Lopez's 14-strikeout effort against the Detroit Tigers eight days ago.

Nova played stopper Monday night. Perhaps he wasn't the most expected candidate to do that, but he did. Chalk it up to being back in the friendly confines of Progressive Field. Chalk it up to James McCann catching Nova for the first time this season. Chalk it up to the offense putting Nova at ease by jumping all over Trevor Bauer early and often. Or just chalk it up to a White Sox starter finally putting it all together. Whatever it was, the bad times were momentarily over for one night in The Cleve.

The offense's demolition of Bauer quenched a similar thirst for a lineup that scored just five runs in three games against Boston pitching. Yoan Moncada gave the White Sox a 2-0 lead after just two batters my mashing another long homer, not his first long home run in Cleveland this season. Moncada added a couple more RBIs on a sac fly that traveled pretty deep, too, and a rocket of a double off the wall. Nova pitches well in Cleveland? Moncada hits well in Cleveland.

McCann hit a homer, too, continuing to hit well whenever he gets into the lineup. Tim Anderson didn't exactly hammer his two-run single, but it went down as a line drive in the scorebook. All in all, the White Sox tagged Bauer for eight runs and scored one more off the Indians' bullpen. Nine runs on 13 hits. Not too shabby.

But as welcome as the offense fireworks were, the pitching performance was what was really needed. The White Sox haven't gotten much length at all from their starters this season, and that's had the expected effect on the bullpen. The relief corps has been overworked, leading to undesirable outcomes like the disastrous eighth inning Sunday, when Kelvin Herrera, Caleb Frare and Juan Minaya combined to give up seven runs.

Well, thanks to Nova, for one day, at least, some rest and some normalcy for the White Sox pitching staff.

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A White Sox walk-off win takes some of the sting away from an otherwise ugly doubleheader

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A White Sox walk-off win takes some of the sting away from an otherwise ugly doubleheader

The White Sox won in walk-off fashion Wednesday night, a relieving if not exactly representative conclusion to a long day of baseball on the South Side.

Yonder Alonso was in a do-or-die situation, the White Sox down a run with two outs and the bases loaded in the bottom of the ninth. He delivered, despite coming into the doubleheader with the Baltimore Orioles the owner of a .190 batting average. Not exactly what the White Sox thought he'd do when they acquired him in a December trade with the division-rival Cleveland Indians. For one night, he got to be the hero instead of a to-this-point disappointing addition. He'll have plenty more chances to turn around his briefly established reputation with White Sox fans. Wednesday was a nice start, Alonso putting a single in the outfield and bringing home the tying and winning runs. Cue the celebration.

But there was little to celebrate Wednesday before that moment, a few big hits from the red-hot Jose Abreu aside, another disappointing scene against an Orioles team again in last place after losing 115 games in 2018. The White Sox dropped two of three in Baltimore a week ago. Though they won Monday night at Guaranteed Rate Field, they looked destined for the same fate Wednesday until Alonso's hit. A 3-3 record against the cellar-dwelling Orioles isn't good. But it's better than a 2-4 record against them.

The White Sox blew a 4-0 lead in Game 1, Carlos Rodon falling apart in the fourth inning after three good-looking ones. He threw 41 pitches in that one inning, ballooning his total to 89 by the time Rick Renteria came to get him with just 3.2 innings under his belt. It was a disappointing follow-up performance to the three innings he managed last Friday. He gave up eight runs to the Detroit Tigers that day. Wednesday, the damage was only three. But he couldn't provide his team with the depth it so desperately needs from its starting staff right now. After his first five starts of the season, he had the best numbers on the team, a 2.89 ERA. After 11 runs allowed in 6.2 innings in just two starts, his ERA has jumped up to 5.19.

On top of all that, Renteria said after Game 1 that Rodon apparently has a blister he deals with every time he pitches, a concerning revelation and one Rodon couldn't expand on considering he didn't speak with reporters Wednesday.

Starting pitching remained a problem in Game 2. Ivan Nova delivered a little bit of depth, a plus for Renteria after he used five guys out of his bullpen in the first game. But in his 5.2 innings, Nova allowed five runs, four of them coming on a pair of home runs. He's allowed six homers in his six starts, and asked after the game how he'd describe his outing, he replied with a succinct "bad" before going into some more specifics.

The White Sox can't seem to solve their starting-pitching woes, and though Renteria is hopeful things will turn around, he's not shy about admitting he needs to see more from that unit.

"We've talked about have we been happy with the rotation, how it's been going. It hasn't been going well," Renteria said after Game 2. "And I'll repeat: not because they're not trying to do well, not because they're not preparing, not because they're not doing what they're supposed to do try to put themselves in a good position to execute. It just hasn't manifested itself.

"I'm still expecting that they're going to do what we expected them to do from the outset of the season. Hopefully it starts coming to play a little sooner rather than later. The relief corps has done its best to try to make up for that to a certain extent, but at the end of the day everybody starts to realize how important starting pitching is. It's the key to any good club and their chances of having success."

Though Rodon coughed up three runs before exiting Game 1 earlier than anticipated, he did exit with a lead, so the bullpen can't be taken completely off the hook here, either. Jace Fry gave up the tying run in the seventh inning, and Kelvin Herrera allowed the go-ahead run in the eighth. It wasn't as egregious a meltdown as the White Sox have had this season, certainly. But in ticking of the day's unfortunate events, this needs to be on the list.

More glaring, though, was the defense, which accounted for four errors in the two games. It's worth noting that the Orioles played even worse, charged with five errors on the day. But the White Sox had their troubles, Tim Anderson charged with two errors in a three-batter span in Game 2. First, he couldn't come up with what he hoped would be a double-play ball, then a sliding base runner at second base forced him into a very wide throw as he attempted to complete another would-be double play. It cost the White Sox the tie-breaking run in that inning, and only Alonso's hit bailed Anderson out when the bottom of the ninth rolled around.

Anderson is having a spectacular start to the season at the plate and is making headlines for all sorts of reasons. He's a prime candidate to earn AL Player of the Month honors when they're announced Thursday. But the fielding improvements he made at the end of last season haven't dropped the number of errors in the beginning of this season, and he's already got eight of them through his first 25 games of the campaign. If he plays in the remainder of the White Sox games this season, he's on pace to commit 50 errors. That's not going to fly.

He wasn't alone, though. In Game 1, James McCann fired a ball down the left-field line in Game 1, allowing a run to come home, and Jose Ruiz dropped a ball while covering first base. Combine it with one infield miscue after another from the Orioles — including a head-scratching decision by catcher Austin Wynns in Game 2, when he fired a dropped third strike to an uncovered second base with two outs in the second inning — and it was an ugly thing to watch.

But the Orioles matching the White Sox error-for-error was another unfortunate reminder of how a White Sox team that talked so much about increased expectations during spring training shouldn't be stuck in slopfests with the worst teams in the game. While 3-3 looks a lot better than 2-4, splitting the season series with an Orioles team that once more looks destined for triple-digit defeats is hardly an accomplishment. If the White Sox were truly a team that deserved raised expectations, that deserved their request to focus on the present as much as the future to be fulfilled, then they shouldn't be playing like this against the Orioles.

Baltimore's pitching staff is the game's worst. It has a 5.89 ERA, the highest in baseball, after Wednesday's twin bill. The Orioles have allowed 74  home runs, more than 20 more than the next worst offenders in that category. And yet the White Sox lineup had a stretch of 11 straight hitters retired in a one-run game during Game 2. In the last six innings of Game 1, they mustered three hits, all singles, and no runs.

Does that spell improvement? Does that meet those preseason expectations? No one was planning on an October surprise. But plenty were banking on this team to be significantly better than the Orioles. Significantly better than the Kansas City Royals. Significantly better than the Tigers. The White Sox just wrapped a stretch of 14 straight games against those three teams. They went 8-6. That's better than the inverse, sure. But how much better?

Wednesday night's walk-off win in Game 2 was a positive, no doubt about it. The victory music was playing in the clubhouse. It was a nice reward for a long day at the park. It sure as hell was better than losing and better than getting swept in a doubleheader by one of the worst teams in baseball. But, given how they played for so much of the day, how much better?

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