Lucas Giolito was downright dominant Thursday.
It was the kind of ace-like performance that he made common in 2019, when he transformed from the pitcher with the worst statistics in baseball into an All Star deserving of his place at the top of the South Side starting staff. He tore through the Detroit Tigers, striking out 13 of them and permitting just three hits in seven shutout innings.
This is the kind of Giolito the White Sox expect to see every fifth day.
"He is that guy. I really don't need any more convincing," manager Rick Renteria said back on Opening Day. "I hope that my sense of who he is and what he's capable of doing starts to become something that's very common in everybody's mind's eye when they see him go out and they expect those types of performances consistently."
An ace of the starting rotation is a key ingredient in any championship recipe, and the White Sox have one in Giolito.
In fact, the White Sox rotation, as a whole, has performed quite well of late. After a bumpy first spin through in the season's opening week - even Giolito was roughed up for seven runs on Opening Day - South Side starters have a 2.80 ERA in their last 21 starts.
"The kind of fast and close friendships we've developed among our rotation have been very apparent," Giolito said of the recent success. "We do a very, very good job communicating with each other, letting each know if there is something we need to work on, holding each other accountable. Credit the other guys in the rotation for helping me out before this turn for figuring it out and making that adjustment I needed for the first inning.
"We're very close and we know how to talk to each other and respect each other, and it's going to continue to grow."
But even knowing those good vibes and good numbers - which include a pair of scoreless bullpen-day outings by reliever Matt Foster - the rotation still looms as a continued question mark as the White Sox make a run at the franchise's first playoff berth in more than a decade. Giolito and Dallas Keuchel have provided a steady 1-2 punch. But behind them, injuries and inconsistencies have made things slightly more mysterious.
Reynaldo López and Carlos Rodón have been on the injured list for most of the season to this point. Gio González has struggled to give the team much length in his fill-in role. Dylan Cease has a very nice ERA, but he's done his fair share of dancing out of trouble and leads the team with six home runs allowed. Renteria has resorted to a pair of bullpen days as the team's much discussed starting-pitching depth was soaked up in a hurry.
So how does the White Sox starting rotation bulk up for the pennant race and get deeper than its reliable top two?
The good news is that reinforcements are on the way. Renteria reported Thursday that López is close to returning from the shoulder soreness that's kept him out of action for all but two outs this season. It's possible he could fill the "to be announced" slot Saturday in the second game of the White Sox series against the Cubs, though that's just an educated guess. Even once he returns to full health, López will have work to do to bounce back from a mostly woeful 2019 campaign that saw a few flashes of brilliance amid a bumpy ride that ended in a 5.38 ERA.
The same can be said for Rodón, who also figures to return to the starting staff at some point, though Rick Hahn said earlier this week that Rodón is a tad behind Lopez in his own return from shoulder soreness that knocked him out early. He, too, has more to prove than just an ability to stay healthy.
And so much like we thought when the season began, how far the White Sox can go in 2020 could still hinge on the performances of López, Rodón and Cease the rest of the way and whether they are truly the reinforcements that can deepen the rotation past Giolito and Keuchel at the top.
Because you need more than just two guys to make some noise in October, let alone get there.
In a normal season, further bolstering could be done with external additions. But don't expect any via trade before this year's deadline at the end of the month - outside a very specific kind of addition, that is. Hahn hasn't exactly been bullish on the idea of much in the way of trade activity in this most unusual season, with teams just a month removed from Opening Day by the time the trade deadline rolls around. The general manager came out and said that it's unlikely he'll be in the market for rentals.
What could potentially come about, as several national reporters have said, are trades that see teams swap one long-term asset for another. The White Sox have been hesitant to part ways with their attractive young talent, and for good reason, as it's set them up for seeming long-term success as they embark on the contention phase of their carefully crafted rebuilding project.
"We're continuing to be focused on the long term. We're continuing to be focused on putting ourselves in the best position, not just this year, but for the long term," Hahn said earlier this week. "By that I mean essentially, in all probability, depending on pricing, rentals is probably not where we would invest if we wind up doing anything. It's going to be more something that would help us both in ‘20 as well as ‘21 and beyond.
"Never say never. In the end, it's all going to come down to pricing. If there is a way to get better and we were comfortable with that exchange that only makes us better in ‘20, then we'll obviously consider it. But in terms of two-weeks-out (from the deadline) philosophy, we remain focused on the long term."
But while the White Sox pitching reinforcements are in all likelihood coming from within, that isn't strictly limited to the team running López and Rodón back out there and crossing its fingers.
It means what we saw Wednesday night, when Dane Dunning made his major league debut in splendid fashion. He lasted just 4.1 innings and threw just 73 pitches, the last of which was hit out for a three-run homer. But he looked otherwise terrific, striking out seven Tigers and showing that even with the high expectations generated by the talent already on the roster when the season started, there's still more on the way for these young White Sox.
Dunning figures to slot into the rotation on a consistent basis at some point, but not right away. Two off days next week allow Renteria to plot out his rotation with a little breathing room, and the next time Dunning will be needed is a week from Sunday. But if he can perform the way he did Wednesday, that's exactly the kind of midseason addition this rotation could need.
And so a rotation that's quietly thrived with López and Rodón on the IL is about to be made more whole. López is expected back soon, Dunning will rejoin the rotation when he's needed again, and Rodón should be back at some point. Those aren't traditional deadline acquisitions, but they'll give the White Sox a full complement of starting pitchers to use and, the hope is, make a playoff push.
"All those guys are very, very good pitchers," Giolito said. "We've seen what Carlos and Lopey can do. I was very impressed with Dane last night, take the ball like that, command the zone with multiple pitches including different breaking balls. I'm looking forward to seeing Dane back when the time is right.
"Same thing for Lopey and Carlos. They've done everything they can to get back healthy, and they'll be joining us, hopefully soon, to help contribute."
Lucas Giolito a dominant ace, White Sox reinforcements can deepen rotation originally appeared on NBC Sports Chicago