Last year, Dylan Cease couldn't save the Chicago White Sox.
He was a part of the playoff roster, but the team went with Dane Dunning for a short-lived start in the season-determining Game 3 of their American League Wild Card Series against the Oakland Athletics. Dunning didn't make it out of the first inning, the White Sox resigned to a bullpen game with no true No. 3 starting-pitching option to turn to behind Lucas Giolito and Dallas Keuchel. And because of it, they were eliminated from the postseason.
This year, Cease won't be shunted off to the bullpen. He'll be a part of the White Sox' playoff rotation, without a doubt. And with the uncertainty surrounding the health of Carlos Rodón, Cease could very well be the reason this team makes the lengthy October run it's been dreaming of since the spring.
"This is his career year so far," Giolito said of Cease in an interview with NBC Sports Chicago. "This is where he's really kind of taken the bull by the horns, learned from his little bit of experience the last couple years and really applied himself in all areas, improving everything.
"He's a guy that knows how talented he is. We all know how talented he is, he has the best stuff in the big leagues. He knows that, and he had frustrations the last couple years not being able to show that on a consistent basis. But this year's been such a great step forward for him really coming into his own and showing everybody the pitcher he is."
The best stuff in the big leagues, eh? Sounds like the kind of thing you want on your side during a championship chase.
Cease has indeed unlocked something in 2021, his first full season in the majors, even though it seems like he's been around for years now. Working with first-year pitching coach Ethan Katz, Cease went from an ugly 2020 campaign that featured a whole lot of walks, a whole lot of homers and a whole lot of unsuccessful starts to a 2021 that has established him as a reliable arm that inspires confidence every time he takes the mound.
"He goes out there, and we know that if he's going to be in the strike zone with his pitches, he's going to get 10 strikeouts, he's going to be throwing up a bunch of zeroes," Giolito said. "I think last year, it was always a battle, right? He finished with like a 4.00 ERA, but it was the walks and all sorts of stuff going on. Whereas this year, he'll turn it on and you'll just see the utter domination. So anytime a guy like that's going out to the mound, we're pretty confident."
A start after taking a batted ball off his arm, Cease finished off his regular season with four innings of one-run ball in the White Sox' 5-2 loss to the Detroit Tigers on Sunday. In that game against the Cleveland Indians last weekend, when he made an early exit after getting hit, he was dealing, giving up zero runs in 5.1 innings.
It's easy to see Cease doing that kind of thing come playoff time, when he figures to stack up behind Giolito and Lance Lynn. And it could be critical to the White Sox coming anywhere close to achieving their lofty goals.
Rodón has pitched at a Cy Young-caliber level whenever he's been on the mound. But that hasn't been as often as he would like. Now, with persistent shoulder soreness bugging him after his final start of the regular season, the same kinds of health concerns that have defined his career to this point have left his status for the postseason a mystery with just a handful of days before the playoffs start.
A Rodón-sized hole would be a big deal for a White Sox team that leaned on its rotation to win an AL Central championship and seem ready to do so as they make a run at the World Series. But the 2021 rotation does not stop at three pitchers, like the 2020 edition stopped after two.
Cease is there and capable of playing the role he wasn't asked to play a season ago.
"I think the best things you can say about a player or pitcher is he competes the same way all the time, no ups and downs," White Sox manager Tony La Russa said in Cleveland. "With Dylan, every throw, whether it was a bullpen or exhibition game or his turn on the mound, I mean he's coming ready to pitch and compete.
"He's got some wins, he's got a nice record. He could have got distracted, could have got satisfied. But he's really stayed hungry, and that's something you put a big check mark next to as far as looking at his potential."
Cease is still a young pitcher, of course, still someone who's figuring out how to pitch in the majors. But he's also a very effective weapon in the present. And with the White Sox heading into October, he could find himself asked to shoulder an important load. Even with a healthy Rodón, Cease will be a big part of the White Sox' starting-pitching plans. Without Rodón, though, Cease will suddenly be elevated to the status of the team's Game 3 starter.
In a best-of-five series, that could be a very important game. A season-determining game.
But the White Sox won't be throwing the 2020 version of Cease that frustrated nearly every time he took the mound. No, they'll be throwing a different pitcher, an evolved pitcher, someone who they can count on with their season on the line.
And if that ends up being the scenario in which Cease pitches? Well, at least the White Sox will have the best stuff in the big leagues on their side.
"I feel like I really established a lot of things this season," Cease told NBC Sports Chicago. "It's been a really good year, and I feel ready for (the playoffs). Right now is as good as I've ever been in my life. So it's a good time for it to be peaking.
"It's definitely going to be the most intense pitching I've ever had in my life. But that usually brings out that next level in guys that you can't normally reach without that pressure and intensity. I'm definitely looking forward to what that ends up bringing out."