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Keuchel knows he must earn spot in Sox' playoff rotation

/ by Vinnie Duber
Presented By Nationwide Insurance Agent Jeff Vukovich
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The Chicago White Sox will have a decision to make come October.

Dallas Keuchel hopes he can make it tougher on them than it is right now.

"I have been the weakest starter in the rotation for much of the year," the veteran left-hander said matter-of-factly Saturday.

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Starting rotations typically slim down when the postseason rolls around, from the five-man crews they are during baseball's six-month regular-season marathon to a tighter four, built-in off days allowing managers to deploy their best arms more regularly with the season on the line.

The White Sox have raced out to baseball's largest division lead thanks in large part to the dominance of their starting staff, providing no shortage of options for Tony La Russa to choose from come October. That's a stark difference from a year ago, when the White Sox had nowhere to turn in the season-deciding Game 3 of their American League Wild Card Series.

While La Russa, pitching coach Ethan Katz and the rest of the White Sox brain trust will have plenty of factors to weigh when it comes to tabbing the most fabulous four starters for playoff duty, ask just about any South Side fan at this precise moment, and they'll tell you the decision's a no-brainer:

Leave Keuchel out of it, and keep him off the playoff roster entirely.

 

Given that baseball is very much a "what have you done for me lately?" game — general manager Rick Hahn described it as a "result-oriented enterprise" Friday — it's understandable they feel that way. What Keuchel has done for the White Sox lately has not been good, with a hideous 6.79 ERA in his last 10 starts, the most recent of which saw him crushed by the Chicago Cubs and surrender six runs in one inning of work.

In an admirably frank assessment Saturday, Keuchel doesn't seem to disagree with those fans too much, realizing he'll have to throw much better in September than he did in July and August to earn a nod in October.

"I definitely think that's fair to say," he said. "I'm open and honest with everything that I say and do. And shoot, I've been probably — not probably — I have been the weakest starter in the rotation for much of the year. That just speaks volumes to the advancement of (Dylan) Cease and (Carlos) Rodón being the guy that everybody expected him to be. (Lucas) Giolito and (Lance) Lynn have been themselves, and it's just me kind of bringing up the rear.

"Of course, I think about it. It's what everybody plays for. Once you get a taste of the postseason, that's all you want to do from there on out. So I've definitely thought about it, but letting myself get rolled up into that idea is the least of my worries right now. I've just got to make sure that I'm myself come Oct. 3, the last game of the year, and whatever happens happens.

"But I've always been a team-first guy. So if it doesn't work out, I'm going to be as mad as whoever else isn't on it. But at the same time, if you're not getting the job done, you don't expect a spot if you're not putting up the numbers and doing your job."

Part of what makes it seem so easy to evaluate Keuchel as a pitcher the White Sox should stay away from come October is the performance of the team's other starting pitchers. Lynn is arguably the AL Cy Young front runner. Giolito has looked far more ace-like in the second half of the season and has turned in one excellent performance after another against fellow contenders. Cease has done great work to turn things around after a sour 2020 campaign and looks like a potentially devastating playoff weapon. And Rodón, finally healthy, should place high in the Cy Young vote, too, in the midst of a sensational season after being non-tendered in December.

But even while those four have made the rotation the White Sox' biggest strength heading toward the postseason, Keuchel has stumbled. The results have been ugly, his numbers against left-handed hitters uncharacteristically bad, to the point he said earlier this year he "feels like I'm on Mars" against them, and his home-run total the highest it's been in his career.

Don't worry about needing to point that out on Twitter, by the way. He knows it. And he's trying to fix it, even if he can't really explain it.

 

"You can look at everything and kind of make yourself a jumbled mess. So I try to keep it simple and in between when I'm doing my work. Sometimes it works and sometimes it doesn't. It's just the way things have been going right now," he said. "By no means ... have I pitched the way I wanted to pitch. There's probably only been a handful of games where I feel like I've been my true self.

"I wish I had something (to explain it), that I wasn't feeling well or anything. I'll never make excuses. This is, honestly, the best physically I've felt all year. And it's really kind of mindboggling sometimes, the one or two mistake pitches that I make in the course of these games. ... If I take away some of the self-made mistakes, we are looking at a totally different five, six last 10 starts.

"My last 10 starts have been ugly, to say the least. ... I'm trying to right this thing in September and make some adjustments, and hopefully we are sitting here talking about a lot of wins instead of a lot of pitiful performances."

If the season ended today, Keuchel knows what fate might await him. Of course, the season does not end today, and so he's focused on getting back to being himself over the regular season's final month and change.

Keuchel, of course, has a track record of success that doesn't preclude that from happening. He's won a Cy Young Award, is fresh off a 0.99-ERA season in 2020 and has been to the promised land, with a World Series ring on his finger.

That resume is giving the White Sox confidence. But indeed Keuchel has it right when he points to the importance of the month of September.

"I know I can be better," he said, "and I'm going to need to be better in September, that's for sure."

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