One turn through the rotation, the White Sox finest starting-pitching performance of the nascent 2021 campaign came from Carlos Rodón.
And that allows the White Sox to dream big about how good this starting staff can be — and how far it can take them.
When it comes to Rodón, whose horrendous injury luck has waylaid much of his major league career to this point, it hasn't been useful to project deep into the future. But pitching like a new man, thanks to his work with new pitching coach Ethan Katz, Rodón provided a glimpse of the endgame in his first outing of the 2021 season: five innings of shutout baseball featuring nine strikeouts and a couple great escapes in the White Sox 6-0 win over the Seattle Mariners.
"He just continues to improve, doesn't he?" White Sox manager Tony La Russa said after the game. "You remember his first bullpen, to his first batting practice, to his first (spring) game, and now every time he goes out there, he's taking a couple steps forward.
"Just that continued improvement, it means a lot of important things for us going down from here to October."
There's that word. The White Sox made no bones about their lofty expectations for the season. Then came the trademark microscopic focus on the season-opening series, where things went poorly, generally speaking, for the South Siders, who dropped three of the four games they played against the Los Angeles Angels.
The Mariners are not exactly world-beaters, but it was Rodón who brought the idea of a deep October run for these White Sox back into focus with his palate-cleansing performance Monday night. He pitched wonderfully during the spring, and this, his first regular season start since Aug. 3 of last year — and just his third since he left he had Tommy John surgery in May 2019 — was more of the same.
Rodón had moments where he made things look easy. But it was his ability to escape the jams he created that truly impressed.
In the third inning, he threw a pickoff attempt well wide of José Abreu at first base, allowing J.P. Crawford to scamper to third and represent the tying run, in what was then a 1-0 game, just 90 feet away with nobody out. Rodón sandwiched a pop up between a couple of strikeouts to strand the runner.
In the fourth, he issued three straight one-out walks, bringing the tying run to the dish after his offense had grown the lead from one run to four. Rodón got a broken-bat ground ball to third base, which ended in a force out at home, and a strikeout to keep the Mariners off the scoreboard.
For Rodón, and many young pitchers, those moments would have led to snowballing, to runs, to losses. Not Monday.
"It tells you a lot when he’s able to do that," White Sox catcher Yasmani Grandal said. "We’ve all seen what he could do just with two pitches in the past, and now he’s a four-pitch mix. I feel like there’s a lot left in the tank, I don’t think we’ve seen the best of Carlos Rodón yet. The future for him looks pretty bright."
Grandal believes there's plenty of room for Rodón to improve, and the left-hander agrees. But seeing a performance like Monday's allows the White Sox to really dream about October, both getting there and getting to the end.
The front office patched a big hole in the 2020 roster by trading for Lance Lynn. Now the White Sox starting staff has a trio of aces, Lynn joining Lucas Giolito and Dallas Keuchel. That's a heck of a 1-2-3 punch to throw out there in a playoff series. But while the White Sox might have won their AL Wild Card Series a year ago if they had a third reliable starting-pitching option, they'll need more than three to win the World Series.
That's where Rodón and Dylan Cease come in. And if they can provide that dependability, then things can get really interesting.
"The optimum that every team looks for is to have a chance to win with your starting pitcher every time you take the field," La Russa said. "And (that's) the way we feel about Dylan, and now Carlos.
"It's really important, because if you're going to win, you start it by stopping the other club, and you've got to stop them with your starter, and then you have the bullpen. So having a deep starting rotation, especially if you look at the competition in this league, it's necessary."
Nothing was guaranteed when Rodón rejoined the White Sox after they non-tendered him early in the offseason. He needed to win the fifth-starter job in camp. And he did, convincingly, it turned out.
But even after that, nothing is guaranteed. Rodón has to stay healthy, and he has to keep pitching like this. It's why the left-hander is likely sticking to the classic "one game at a time" sports cliche, because he has his sights set on more than just one good game. He wants a good season.
"It’s definitely a step in the right direction," he said, "with a few more to go, obviously."
If he can deliver that, the White Sox dreams of October are far more likely to come true.