In an alternate universe, maybe Dylan Cease and Kyle Hendricks would be teammates, the 25-year-old picking the Cubs veteran’s brain about how he developed his trademark consistency.
Instead, they faced off on Sunday in the White Sox’ 13-1 win against the Cubs, Cease’s second straight one-run start.
“To be able to go six-plus (innings) the last two, is definitely something I’m striving for,” Cease said after throwing 108 pitches in Sunday's win. “I think I can even take it to another level with my efficiency. That’s something that definitely means a lot to me.”
Four years after the Cubs traded him as a prospect to the White Sox, Cease’s development has helped make the South Siders’ rotation one of the staunchest in the American League. Offense has come and gone this season, and the White Sox bullpen is still trying to figure out how to perform up to its talent level. But starting pitching is the team’s key to securing the AL’s top playoff seed.
The missing piece for Cease in the past has been consistency, but his lows have begun to even out this year. On Sunday, he followed up a dominant outing at Toronto with a six-inning, four-hit performance against the Cubs. He struck out 11, recording double-digit strikeouts for the third time this month alone.
“I feel like my velocity has been picking up,” Cease said. “My stuff is sharp, my command is as good as it’s ever been in my career right now.”
Cease generated nine whiffs with his slider, in the fourth inning causing Cubs catcher Austin Romine to swing and miss so dramatically that the bat flew out of his hands.
“Honestly the biggest thing is count leverage and then being able to attack with the fastball,” Cease said. “I was throwing inside a lot, and I was getting the ball there, which tends to open up the outer-half. And it makes it harder to hit the slider, so I think it’s a combination of the count leverage, utilizing my fastball and then executing good sliders. “
In the years since the infamous crosstown trade, the consensus has become that the White Sox got the better end of the deal. And yet it’s still a rousing topic of discussion every time the two teams play each other. (Whether it’s fair to evaluate a trade in hindsight is a whole different matter.)
Out of the trade, the Cubs got immediate gratification, with José Quintana helping them to the NL Championship Series that year. In the haul of prospects the White Sox got on return, they acquired two members of their next championship-window team: Cease and Eloy Jiménez.
“We knew we ran the risk of my kids having to sit through another parade come October,” White Sox general manager recalled during a Zoom conference with White Sox reporters a month ago. “That doesn’t sit too well. As a result, when you do those deals, perhaps the cost is a little higher than when you’re dealing with someone that’s a little bit more out-of-sight-out-of-mind and isn’t going to come back and haunt your family and your fan base quite as easily.”
The Cubs, however, didn’t win a World Series with Quintana. And now, Jiménez and Cease are haunting the Cubs fan base.
Jiménez hit a three-run homer on Sunday, his sixth home run against the Cubs in his career and third this season. He entered Sunday batting .349 against the club that traded him.
Cease has been the question mark in retrospective trade evaluation, but if he can sustain the success he’s had recently, he’ll tip the scales further.
“It’s understanding that he needs to keep learning and growing,” La Russa said when asked about the key to maintaining Cease’s progress. “Don’t think he’s there yet. Just get excited about his potential.”