KANSAS CITY, Mo. – The sun dipped below the horizon, and Reynaldo López strained to count the number of fingers his catcher put down.
Was he calling for a fastball? A slider?
“And we’re like, what’s going on?” teammate Lucas Giolito said, recalling some of those dusky games together in the Nationals farm system. “Is he not focused? What’s going on? And he’s like, ‘No, I literally can’t see (the signs).’”
That’s how intertwined López and Giolito’s careers have been, that they were together long before López’s cornea issue was diagnosed, while he was steadily moving up through the minors all the same.
“It's good to share that journey with him,” López told NBC Sports Chicago, through team interpreter Billy Russo, “and, and to experience kind of the same success and struggles.”
On Saturday at Kansas City, López is scheduled to start in the place of Lance Lynn (right knee inflammation), as the 27-year-old puts together a come back season. López has given the White Sox a surprise lift this season, rebounding from down years in 2019 and 2020.
With Lynn and Giolito (strained left hamstring) on the IL for at least their next turns in the rotation, and Dallas Keuchel still “searching,” as manager Tony La Russa put it after Friday’s loss, the staff could use a boost.
“The stuff is really sharp,” White Sox Pitching coach Ethan Katz said of López. “The velocity’s there. The slider’s taken a big step forward. But the biggest thing is confidence. When you have a confident pitcher, you're going to get positive results.”
Since the White Sox called up López in July, he’s posted a 1.54 ERA. Throwing mostly out of the bullpen, López also filled in for starter Carlos Rodón while he was on the injured list last month. Most recently, López tossed five perfect innings in relief against the Cubs, after Keuchel gave up six runs (five earned) in one-plus innings.
“I use the analogy,” Giolito said in a conversation with NBC Sports Chicago, “Reynaldo was like a caterpillar that went into a chrysalis in (Triple-A) Charlotte the first half of the season. He’s emerged a butterfly for us right now.”
If López and Giolito’s careers continue to mirror each other, that bodes well for the White Sox. The pair have been teammates dating back to 2013 short-season Single-A ball. The Nationals traded them to the White Sox together ahead of the 2017 season.
By 2018, López was the team’s best pitcher (3.91 ERA). And as Giolito’s Guaranteed Rate commercial belts over White Sox broadcasts, Giolito was the worst pitcher in baseball that year (league-high 118 earned runs).
The next year, Giolito was an All-Star. And López’s performance began to slip.
“We’ve known each other since we were kids,” Giolito said. “And he—I’ve always said this-- he was better than me in the minor leagues. Stuff-wise, pitching-wise, he was a step above me. And so even though he had that rough patch over the last two years or so, I wasn’t going to lose faith in him.”
López began this season with an eye operation in May. He said his vision has always been blurry, but in the minors, especially, he’d chalk it up to the elements – stadium lights, sun, darkness.
When the Nationals traded López and Giolito to the White Sox, López only made it through the first few lines of the eye exam. Over the next few years, he tried contacts and glasses. It became clear he needed a different solution.
“It was a big change,” López said, “because after surgery, I could start seeing the signs clearly. I had the confidence to throw the pitch that I that the catcher was calling.”
The improvement in vision, however, didn’t immediately translate. López posted a 7.62 ERA in Triple-A Charlotte, worse than his already bloated 2020 season in the majors (6.49 ERA).
“I wasn't completely happy there with the situation,” he said. “But then the week before I was a called up, I had some conversations with my wife and my agents about, ‘Just keep going, don't quit, and keep doing my best.’ And something clicked.”
As the White Sox came out of the All-Star break, they called up López to join the bullpen. In 14 games, he’s been posting career numbers.
“I have the same confidence level that I had in 2018,” he said. “The difference is, I have more experienced now. With all the things that I been through this year, I’m more prepared, I've learned from all those things.”