Dylan Cease left his start Sunday in Cincinnati with no runs on the board. No hits, either.
But walking seven guys in three-plus innings will bring out the hook.
It’s important to remember, as the White Sox have so quickly shifted into contention mode, that Cease is not a finished product, just 24 years old with 25 big league starts under his belt, and one start — or even all 25 of them to this point — won’t be the be all, end all for his promising career.
But indeed Sunday’s effort was rather emblematic of what Cease has done in this 2020 campaign. He’s walked a lot of guys — his 32 free passes are the second most in baseball — he’s put a lot of runners on base, he hasn’t gone very deep in games. And yet the damage on the scoreboard has been minimal. He ended up with just three runs to his name Sunday, his season ERA growing only to 3.52.
Cease hasn’t gone more than five innings in any of his last five starts. But he’s given up three or more earned runs just three times all season. He’s found himself in plenty of danger but has danced out of it over and over and over again.
That didn’t happen Sunday, though he wasn’t the only reason why, as White Sox pitchers walked a total of 11 Cincinnati Reds, hit three more with pitches, gave up a 428-foot home run and allowed seven runs in a 7-3 defeat.
But the Reds, fighting for a spot in the postseason, showed that it is, in fact, possible to make Cease pay for his repeated flirtations with disaster. Certainly whichever playoff team or teams the White Sox go up against will be capable of the same thing.
And so it makes you wonder: Can the White Sox count on Cease once the playoffs roll around? In, you know, a week?
Playoff pitching is a different world from the regular season, with White Sox catcher Yasmani Grandal making that point earlier this week.
“We don’t need you for nine innings, we need you for five,” he said. “That’s pretty much what playoff baseball is: five and dive and then you throw your ‘pen out there.
“If you are rolling, you go six or seven. But you are not thinking of having the starter going nine. We’ve seen in the past when that happened, what the outcome of that has been. You think about the Red Sox with Pedro Martinez in Yankee Stadium rolling through seven and all of a sudden eighth or ninth inning, the Yankees come and get to him.
“Playoff baseball is five and dive, and now the ‘pen takes through.”
It's not like we should expect what Cease did Sunday to happen every time he pitches. But just getting through five innings should be its own, separate goal.
As different as playoff pitching is under normal circumstances, playoff pitching in 2020 is going to be even more different, as manager Rick Renteria brought up Sunday. While the White Sox have a great relief corps that’s capable of eating up four, five or even six innings, it’s hard if not impossible to expect that on a daily basis. And the first three rounds of the playoffs leading up to the World Series will have no off days in between games, as they normally would with teams traveling between cities. That could wreak some serious havoc on the availability of certain relief pitchers.
And in those win-or-go-home contests, Renteria can’t save certain guys to be ready for when Cease pitches.
And so the next week could be crucial in getting Cease as ready as he can be for the high-stakes world of playoff baseball. Because walking seven Reds is not a good way to go into a series against the Toronto Blue Jays or the Cleveland Indians or deeper into the postseason against even more dangerous lineups like the Tampa Bay Rays, Oakland Athletics and New York Yankees.
“All of us are going to continue to see how he settles in here in the next couple of days and see where it goes,” Renteria said after Sunday’s game. “Certainly when we get into the postseason, we want to be able to get through, at minimum, five innings. You don't want to stress, necessarily, your bullpen every single day.
“Trust me, I get the idea of being able to try to shorten games up, but when you throw those guys every single day, it puts a tremendous amount of stress on them. It's all based on, obviously, score, things of that nature, that allow us to see how we deal with these guys.
“We'll continue to talk about it and see where we're at as we move forward. We'll cross the bridge once we get to wherever it is we're at. Right now, we just want to get across the finish line here, and then we'll have an idea.”
Cease zeroed in on one specific problem with his outing Sunday. “I was yanking my fastball,” he said. And he added that he’s made a quick fix with this type of issue in the past.
Speaking more generally, though, he’s well aware that he hasn’t pitched the way he’s wanted to this season.
“I like where my stuff is at right now. It’s just a matter of using it and executing,” he said. “I’m just going to go in with the same process and not get too up or down over one or two games.
“I haven’t found a great rhythm with it. But I never feel like I’m really far away from it. I haven’t pitched the best of my abilities by any means, but I’m not going to get too down about it.”
That’s probably for the best. Though, as mentioned, time is running out. If this was his 11th start in a normal season, there’d be plenty of time to iron out any issues. Instead, the playoffs start in a week. Cease has one more regular-season outing, likely coming Friday in the first game of the final series of the regular season against the Crosstown-rival Cubs.
If the White Sox wanted to, based on the rest schedule, they could turn to Cease to start an if-necessary Game 3 of the first round of the playoffs. But that game’s mere existence would mean an elimination scenario for the South Siders. They’ll remain confident in what Cease can do when he’s on because they’ve seen it before, and it’s been very impressive.
But 2020 has seen some trends develop for Cease. Putting a lot of guys on base is not an easy way to win under any circumstances. It’s an even harder way to win in the postseason.
“What he's doing right now can be corrected,” Renteria said. “Can we do it as quickly as possible? I'll put it to you this way: When people watch someone do something and someone will say, 'Why don't you just do this? And this will correct it.' It actually doesn't work that way. I wish it did.
“Got to get back on the horse and see if we can right the ship.”