Reynaldo Lopez and Ivan Nova have a bet going. And Wednesday night, for the second time in six days, Lopez had to pay up.
As the media gathered around his locker following an excellent eight-inning outing in the White Sox loss to the Miami Marlins, Lopez slipped Nova a 100-dollar bill.
“I told him, ‘You need to speak English.’ It’s not that he doesn’t speak English. He does. But he’s kind of shy a little bit. So we made a little bet,” Nova explained Thursday. “I’m not going to say the amount. But I gave him two options: ‘I’m going to give you a certain amount of money if you do the interviews in English after the games, and you’re going to give me 100 bucks if you don’t do it.’
“I told him, ‘It doesn’t matter if it’s a good game or a bad game, you’ve got to do it in English.’ So he pitched a good game (last Friday) in Tampa, and I was waiting for the guys to do the interview. I was right next to him, and I saw him take the (money out of his wallet) and he said, ‘Here you go, here’s your 100 dollars.’ ‘What are you doing?’ He said, ‘I’m not going to do it, there’s a lot of people here.’
“I told him, ‘You’re only going to get better if you try. If you don’t try you’re never going to get better.’
“(Wednesday) it was the same thing. I was waiting for the guys. And he said, ‘No.’ ‘OK, give me my money.’ And then he goes, ‘OK, I’m going to do it,’ but when he saw you guys he got his money. So I told him I’m going to talk to (manager Rick Renteria) and make you pitch in two days so I can get more money.”
It’s a fun story, for sure. But to Nova, it’s not a way to get a little extra cash, it’s a necessity. This is what mentorship looks like.
The White Sox traded for Nova over the winter with a couple goals in mind. They wanted a stable, veteran presence in their rotation to eat up innings and help the bullpen, a la what James Shields did when he logged 200 innings in 2018. But they also wanted a guiding presence for younger pitchers, which is another role Shields took on last season, though he was most closely associated with the ongoing development of Lucas Giolito, whose locker was right next to his in the clubhouse. Giolito had rave reviews for Shields at the end of last season.
Nova is serving as Lopez’s Shields. Their lockers are right next to each other in the White Sox clubhouse, and the two are often spotted playfully chatting before and after games. This is exactly what the team envisioned when they made the trade for Nova in December.
“The first thing that I did with him is just trying to make sure that he’s comfortable with everybody and everyone possible here. Comfort starts everything,” Nova said. “We’re having a conversation, but sometimes if I’ve got to be tough on the guy, I’ll be tough on the guy. I tell him a lot of times to just go out there and enjoy the game.
“The stuff is there, a lot of times it’s more the mental part than anything else. ‘Try to stay focused, stay in the game. We can talk while you’re pitching or not, but make sure you’re staying in the game, pitch by pitch.’ Stuff like that. It’s simple stuff that I’m pretty sure that he knew before, but it’s always good to have a guy that can take you to the right place and tell you the right thing at the right time.
“He jokes a lot, he plays a lot, but he listens. That’s the good thing. We have a really good relationship. He goes out there and works on his bullpen. A lot of time I make sure he works in the weight room. He’s a hard worker, but we all have days that we don’t feel like, ‘I don’t want to do this.’ We all have those days, and it’s good to have somebody that can push you.”
Nova is drawing on his own experience as a young pitcher from his days with the New York Yankees, when guys like CC Sabathia, Andy Pettitte and Mariano Rivera served as his mentors.
And according to Nova, it’s not just about what happens on the mound. Making Lopez comfortable includes getting him to speak English more often. That’s what this bet is about.
“I did it because somebody did that to me,” he said. “It’s good to go out there and have a conversation like I do with you guys and know what you guys are talking about. And a lot of other, different things. If you’ve got to go to the doctor — hopefully it never happens — and you don’t understand, you need somebody to translate.
“A lot of times in baseball, I’ve seen a guy saying stuff that the person didn’t say. If I want to say something, they’ll put it another way, and it sounds good and it is good sometimes, but it’s not what you want, it’s not what you feel. I’m just trying to help the guy.
“I try to help the guy be better in any possible way that I can help him. As a pitcher, he’s got way better stuff than what I had. He just needs the mental part. The English part, we’re going to get better.”
Things have been much better for Lopez of late. Though he’s made just three starts since the All-Star break, he’s delivered on the promise he made at the end of the first half, that he would be a different pitcher than the one who had a 6.34 ERA after his 18th start of the year. In three second-half starts, he’s got a 1.71 ERA, 25 strikeouts and only four walks in 21 innings.
Wednesday, Renteria chalked some of that recent success up to Lopez’s teammates, and Lopez echoed the influence his teammates, Nova included, have had on him. Certainly Nova’s seen the difference that’s made Lopez look a lot more like the dominant pitcher he was at the end of last season.
“He’s more aggressive. He’s more aggressive since (his first start of the second half in) Oakland,” Nova said. “It started in Oakland. He was more aggressive, and he remembered that feeling. He remembered that feeling and stayed hungry. It’s something that we talked about the whole year, and he’s finally putting it together now.
“He’d pitch a good game in the first half, but there was something that he didn’t like about that game. He’d come in here and put his head down and start reading stuff. So I tried to take that away from him. I told him, ‘You pitch a good game, you’re always going to have one thing you didn’t like about it or two things. But when there are more positive things than bad things, you eliminate the bad thing and focus on the good things.’”
Well, there haven’t been many bad things to focus on over Lopez’s last three starts. Renteria called the way Lopez is pitching “elite” on Wednesday night, and it’s reminiscent of the way Lopez closed out last season, when he looked capable of being an ace-type pitcher. The rediscovery of that kind of success is nothing but good news for the White Sox, who could be making the transition from rebuilding to contending come the 2020 season and could use a reliable Lopez to help solidify a potentially exciting rotation alongside Giolito, Michael Kopech and Dylan Cease.
And Nova’s hand in that is an example of what general manager Rick Hahn talked about all offseason when referencing the impact guys like Nova, who might not be on those contending White Sox teams, could have on the franchise’s bright future.
Through helping Lopez to pitch better and to feel more comfortable as a person in the White Sox clubhouse, Nova is having an effect on the future. And Lopez is enjoying that effect — perhaps a little too much, at times.
“We have a really good relationship,” Nova said. “It’s not only in here, it’s in the dugout, it’s everywhere.
“I told him once, ‘I’m going to block you because I don’t want you texting me on my off days. I have enough with you at the ballpark. Off day is off day, so don’t text me.’ He texted me one day, and I saw the message and I didn’t answer. And the next day, he was like, ‘Why didn’t you respond to my message?’ I was like, ‘Because I don’t want to.’ And he was like, ‘You could at least put “OK.”’ So I grabbed my phone and typed it in, ‘OK.’ ‘I sent it to you, feel good now?’
“He’s a good boy.”
Nova’s had the effect the White Sox were hoping he would. Now the veteran just wants to get Lopez to flash his bilingual skills.
“I think it’s going to be fine,” Nova said. “Once he loses two or three hundred more bucks, he’s going to do it.”