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Cease shows Sox' rotation will be biggest October strength

/ by Vinnie Duber
Presented By Nationwide Insurance Agent Jeff Vukovich
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The Chicago White Sox' mini losing streak is over.

But while folks were probably sweating out Tuesday night's 5-2 win on the edges of their seats during Liam Hendriks' back-to-back escapes in the eighth and ninth innings, Dylan Cease was the one who made the biggest statement as it pertains to these White Sox' chances come October.

There has been an intense focus on this current stretch of series against fellow American League contenders, and it's perfectly reasonable, even if the White Sox themselves aren't treating it that way, for fans to look upon the four sets with the New York Yankees, Oakland Athletics, Tampa Bay Rays and Toronto Blue Jays as a measuring stick of sorts. After all, while the White Sox are out to a gargantuan lead in the AL Central standings, they own a sub-.500 record against above-.500 teams, the kinds of squads they'll have to go through to reach their championship-level goals.

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But with every win or loss, what the focus should really be is not necessarily on the outcome but on the starting-pitching performances.

"It's very important to have a good and a strong pitching staff. That's something that's definitely given us a lot of confidence in every game," White Sox outfielder Luis Robert said through team interpreter Billy Russo after Tuesday's win. "I think that's going to be a key for the playoffs.

 

"I've been talking to a few players that have had experience in the playoffs, and they say that. They say having a good pitching staff's going to be huge, it's going to be a key for any team that wants to win in the playoffs. And I think we're in a good position for that."

Though a seven-game swing through St. Petersburg and Toronto is off to a sub-.500 start, at 2-3 through five games, the White Sox have received three phenomenal starting-pitching performances during the stretch. Lucas Giolito allowed two runs and only three hits in seven strong innings against the Rays last Friday. Lance Lynn and Cease went back-to-back with seven innings of one-run ball in each of the first two games against the Blue Jays.

The White Sox won just two of those three games but got a taste of that potential playoff success, watching the same starting pitchers who will be getting the ball with their season on the line in October deal against playoff-caliber lineups.

It's nothing new, of course, and the White Sox are only where they are thanks to that dominant starting pitching. The rotation carried the team while it waited for Robert and Eloy Jiménez to return to the lineup, and it's continuing to do so while the team waits for Tim Anderson and Yasmani Grandal to come back and finally make the batting order whole.

But while the ebbs and flows of the offense, not to mention some nail-biting work by the bullpen of late, can drive fans mad, the rotation, for the most part, has been pretty darn steady. Once Carlos Rodón comes off the injured list, which could happen Thursday in Toronto, the White Sox will once more feature the complete arsenal of arms they will throw at opposing teams during the playoffs, when that group could make the difference between an early exit and a lengthy October run.

Tuesday night it was Cease showing he can be a key piece of that puzzle. He quieted the Blue Jays and pitched into the seventh inning for just the third time this season, doing so for the first time on the road and the first time against a team that isn't the Detroit Tigers.

Lynn is a reliable veteran putting together a Cy Young-caliber season. Giolito is the ace of the staff, who earned that title in part with a tremendous postseason effort a season ago. Rodón, finally over a series of significant injuries, has put himself in the same Cy Young conversation as Lynn.

Cease, meanwhile, is stating his case to be an intriguing fourth option for Tony La Russa in the playoffs.

"It's definitely inspiring to watch the (other) starters go out there and do what they do. It makes me want to elevate my game and keep up with them," Cease said. "I'm not actively thinking, 'Man, I've got to do this, this, this to keep up with them.' It's drawing inspiration from them and just going out there and trying to be my best self."

 

"I think every time he goes out there, he does something that's impressive and ... gives optimism about games he's going to pitch this year," La Russa said. "And for the future, too. Boy, he's got a chance to be very special."

When you see efforts like the ones Giolito, Lynn and Cease have turned in on this road trip, that right there is the confidence booster folks might have been looking for during this challenging stretch of the schedule. The White Sox are finding out, of course, that they'll need to be firing on all cylinders heading into the playoffs to make their World Series dreams come true, and they're confident that once they finally have their whole roster together healthy that they will be able to do just that.

But it's long seemed that they will go as far as their starting pitching will carry them.

Performances like the one Cease had Tuesday show that starting pitching can carry them a mighty long way.

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