After an abysmal first half of the 2019 season, Reynaldo Lopez stood at his locker and made a promise.
“You're going to see a different pitcher going forward for the second half of the season,” he said on the Fourth of July, through team interpreter Billy Russo.
And for a while, he delivered. In his first six starts after the All-Star break, he had a 2.13 ERA.
But the same inconsistency that bedeviled him in the first half wasn’t gone for long. He stumbled to the finish line (apart from a complete-game shutout with 11 strikeouts in Cleveland) and ended the season with a 5.38 ERA. Only one qualified starting pitcher in baseball (Boston’s Rick Porcello) had a higher ERA in 2019.
So now what?
“Last year was a year of too many ups and downs,” Lopez said, through Russo, in the early days of spring training. “But I learned to take the positive things from last year, and it put me in a better position for this year, and I'm pretty confident that this is going to be a better year.
“I'm here right now in a much better place mentally and physically, and it's going to be a good year.”
The stakes have gotten much higher for the White Sox as they look to leap into contention mode in 2020, and with that, the stakes are higher for Lopez, too. While Rick Hahn assured that Lopez would have an Opening Day rotation spot way back in September, it’s reasonable to wonder how long this team can allow Lopez to search for consistency.
With Dallas Keuchel now owning a rotation spot for the next three seasons (at least), Michael Kopech returning from Tommy John surgery and a wave of pitching depth on the mend behind him, the starting staff is a lot more crowded than it has been in each of Lopez's first two full seasons in the major leagues.
That doesn’t mean Lopez is pitching for a job before the season even starts. But years of development have yielded to what the White Sox hope is a long period of contention. Now that winning is the most important thing, pitchers repeatedly taking their lumps in “learning moments” should be a thing of the past.
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“I'm going to keep doing my job and keep doing my best. There isn't anything to fight for,” Lopez said. “When you're in this level, everyone knows you can't be comfortable because there's a lot of people behind you that want the spot. That's my mindset.
“I know what I need to do. I know my abilities and all the things I'm able to do. I'm just going to have confidence in myself and in my work, and then we'll see what happens.”
So how does he secure his spot in the rotation moving forward? How does he avoid a repeat of 2019?
In 2018, Lopez was probably the team’s best starting pitcher. But last year, he just couldn’t put things together on any sort of consistent basis, following up every flash of brilliance, like that September evening in Cleveland or the 14 Detroit Tigers he struck out in late April, with disastrous results. Following each of those games, he allowed six runs in his next start.
While those dazzling performances were the highlights of his season, the enduring image of Lopez’s 2019 will be the scolding he got from manager Rick Renteria on the mound in Detroit in his second-to-last start of the season. After spending much of the season talking about “focus” as the issue dogging him most, Lopez stood there as Renteria, in the skipper’s words, “wanted to make sure he was aware that he was actually pitching today.”
With an offseason to reflect, the mental side of the game kept coming up as Lopez described what needs to change from 2019.
“Everyone knows this game is more mental than physical. I used to work on my body more than my mindset, but then I changed that,” he said. “I had some problems, too, that I wanted to improve in that aspect. I made some changes to get my mind right for the season.
“Sometimes I made a bad pitch, and then I couldn't get rid of it. That thought in my mind was always there, or a bad outing that I couldn't get rid of for the next outing. It was always something. When something bad happened, bad thoughts kept on my mind. That was the reason why I struggled last year and wasn't able to be consistent, obviously.
“But this year, I can say it's going to be different. I learned from that, and I know what I need to in order to keep my consistency.”
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