When Lucas Giolito arrived for his Zoom media session Monday afternoon, he threw up the ol’ double sign of the horns.
ROCK N ROLL pic.twitter.com/4yhSOpmnIx— Vinnie Duber (@VinnieDuber) July 13, 2020
And though Giolito’s musical preferences are well known to skew toward hip hop, it was as fitting a sign as any for a pitcher who’s ready to rock n roll.
Even if manager Rick Renteria isn’t ready to reveal Giolito as his pick for the Opening Day starter, it would be absolutely shocking if it’s anyone but the right-hander who turned his career around last season taking the ball in the July 24 opener against the Minnesota Twins.
That's what happens when you're the ace.
Thanks to a transformation that saw him go from the pitcher with the worst statistics in baseball in 2018 to an All Star last year, Giolito enters this campaign in an entirely different world. He’s now leading a rotation on a team with postseason aspirations, a far cry from Opening Day a year ago, when he and the White Sox were coming off 100 losses and there were legitimate questions about how he fit into the team’s long-term pitching picture.
Now he’s anchoring that long-term pitching plan and counts as one of the main reasons the White Sox look capable of finally leaping out of rebuilding mode and into contention mode, capable of competing alongside the Twins and Cleveland Indians in a fight for AL Central supremacy.
Though he bristles at the idea of being called a veteran — he’s just 25 years old, with only two full major league seasons under his belt — he’s eager to be a leader. He’s been talking about it since last year, and now that he’s got a season’s worth of All-Star performance to back it up, he’s ready to take charge, to be the stopper, to set the tone for what’s expected to be a big season from Day 1.
“I absolutely want that,” he said last week. “The way I look at it, being the ace of the staff, you are setting an example not just with what you are doing on the field but also taking a more vocal role, which I feel like I’m trying to continue to get the feel for that. And yeah, that’s pretty much what I want. I want to be that leader of the pitching staff, taking the ball in the first game, kind of setting the tone.
“But at the same time, I want to maintain that thought that I’m not the only ace on the team. I’ve got four more right behind me.”
The White Sox sure are hoping that the rotation is more than just him this year. Last year, the team could count on sterling performances once every five days, but the four starts in between were marked by anything but consistency. The import of veterans Dallas Keuchel and Gio González gives the rotation a heck of a lot more dependability. And if Dylan Cease, Reynaldo López and Carlos Rodón can provide positive answers to the questions about what they’ll be able to give the White Sox this season, then Giolito’s hopes for a hand of aces could come to fruition.
But he’s still the man at the top, brimming with confidence after his transformative 2019.
Keuchel recognizes what he’s seeing in his new teammate. It hasn’t been too long since he had a career year and sat atop the Houston Astros’ rotation as they grew into a perennial contender.
“What I see from him is an ability to be an ace,” Keuchel said of Giolito. “He’s every bit of a horse that you’d want at the top of the rotation. … He’s got all the intangibles you want in a quality major league pitcher that can do it for years to come.
“What I see in him is what I had in myself. … Until you get over that mental edge and push through and have that first good year, you can’t really say too many things out loud. But it’s the inside that really counts, because you’re pushing yourself every day.”
Monday, Giolito looked as ace-like as a pitcher can look during an intrasquad game. After working through a trafficky first inning, he set down the rest of the batters he faced in order over the course of his four innings.
We, of course, talkin’ ‘bout practice. But the White Sox pitchers have, for the most part, looked good in these outings against their teammates. Giolito’s positive performance Monday was preceded by solid work by Rodón, Keuchel and even youngsters like Dane Dunning.
It might only be practice, but it’s the only practice these guys are going to get — save the three exhibition games coming up against the Cubs and Milwaukee Brewers — before the games start counting in a little more than a week.
“I’m trying to go out there and, to the best of my ability, treat it like a big league start during the regular season,” Giolito said. “You have to prepare for that if you want to be successful in those situations. Even though I’m facing a bunch of teammates, I’m going out there and trying to make pitches like I would in a regular-season game.
“I’ve been liking what I’ve been seeing from all of our starters. Filling up the zone, attacking hitters. That’s what we are going to have to do to get deep into games and give our team the best chance to win each time out.
“I love it. We are right where we need to be.”