That was the Reynaldo Lopez the White Sox want to see.
Lopez was terrific in his final start of the 2019 season Saturday, giving up just one run in eight innings of work. He struck out nine and threw four consecutive hitless innings in the middle of the game. The White Sox beat the Detroit Tigers handily in the first game of a final-weekend doubleheader, and everything was sunshine and lollipops.
The problem for Lopez, of course, is that kind of outing was never a guarantee during the 2019 campaign. After a miserable first half, the second half was certainly better, but after a positive stretch out of the All-Star break, it seemed the White Sox never knew what they were going to get from the promising young right-hander. As much as it was possible for him to turn in a gem like Saturday’s, it was equally possible for him to stumble.
The final two outings of his season told the story of his season, really. Both came against the same Tigers team. But last weekend in Detroit, Lopez was so off — missing the much-discussed focus — that manager Rick Renteria made his lone mound visit since having rotator cuff surgery to make sure Lopez knew he was pitching in that game. It was some of the most critical verbiage we’ve ever seen from the South Side skipper.
But then Lopez went out and dazzled Saturday, showing the potential that’s had him discussed as a potential top-of-the-rotation pitcher.
“Today was a great finish and beginning at the same time going into the offseason and getting ready for the upcoming year,” Renteria said Saturday. “It was nice to see him come back and do what he did. We're very optimistic as to what he is for us moving forward.
“That's the kind of start he can have on a consistent basis. You take 30 starts during the year, 32 starts, whatever the case might be, you have 10 good ones, you might have 10 squeaky ones and then the other 10 are the ones that you kind of try to work through.
“Certainly, you can see the stuff that he has and what he brings to the table. We're optimistic that that's kind of the guy we want to see and I think the guy he is.”
So what Lopez will show up in 2020? And more importantly, can the White Sox, looking to make a transition from rebuilding mode to contending mode, afford to let him continue to fluctuate so wildly? If the games start meaning more, how long can they put up with such inconsistencies?
Lopez figures to get an opportunity, with general manager Rick Hahn saying during his end-of-season press conference Friday that Lopez should join Lucas Giolito and Dylan Cease as members of the 2020 rotation. But there are some moving parts that makes that far from an Opening Day guarantee.
Michael Kopech will return from Tommy John surgery, though it’s been hinted he could begin the season in the minors if he needs to work his way back. And the White Sox have starting pitching on their offseason shopping list. If multiple additions to the rotation are made, spots could be hard to come by. Even if Lopez finds a way into the rotation out of spring training, Kopech is just one of several White Sox pitchers planned to return from Tommy John in 2020, perhaps providing late-season reinforcements — and in-season competition for Lopez.
So whether it’s because of the White Sox entering a more winning mode or increased competition on that starting staff, the stakes figure to be higher for Lopez next season. And he knows it.
“Ricky has said that, the pitching coach has said that. We are going to be much better next year. We all have to be prepared for that,” Lopez said Saturday through team interpreter Billy Russo. “I have to be prepared to do a better job. ... I just need to be better. That’s going to be my focus.
“The results are going to speak for themselves. They will be the ones who will say what kind of pitcher I’m going to be.”