How the White Sox' rotation could power a World Series run

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How the Sox' rotation could power a World Series run originally appeared on NBC Sports Chicago

There's a newspaper clipping from 2005 hanging up in the press box at Guaranteed Rate Field.

"The rotation," the headline screams, over a picture of Mark Buehrle, Jon Garland, José Contreras and Freddy García, the Chicago White Sox' four starting pitchers from their last championship run drenched in celebratory champagne.

Fast forward 16 years, and no one should be expecting the 2021 edition to do the most remarkable thing that team's staff did — throw four consecutive complete games to win the pennant — but once more the White Sox boast an electrifyingly good starting rotation, one that could end up taking a similar, champagne-soaked picture.

RELATED: How the Sox became Tim Anderson's team

No American League team's collection of starting pitchers owned a better ERA during the regular season than the White Sox' with its 3.57 mark. In all of baseball, only the Los Angeles Dodgers' starters struck out more opposing hitters than the 944 the White Sox' K'd.

While Carlos Rodón's persistently sore left shoulder has dominated conversation ahead of the AL Division Series, which begins Thursday in Texas, there's little doubt that these White Sox have the best starting pitching in the Junior Circuit.

Lucas Giolito, Lance Lynn, Dylan Cease and Rodón might not combine for four straight complete games.

But they could power the White Sox to a pennant.

'Lance is an absolute bulldog'

OK, so what does "bulldog" mean?

Cease had to pause to make sure he came up with the correct definition for the term he'd just assigned to Lynn.

"How would I define it?" he said in an interview with NBC Sports Chicago last month in Cleveland. "He's up there not making friends, let's just say that."

It's funny, because Lynn has made an awful lot of friends in his first season with the White Sox. Acquired in a win-now move during the virtual Winter Meetings, Lynn was supposed to be a hired gun. He had one year left on his contract and familiarity with Tony La Russa and a World Series ring on his finger. Dane Dunning was the one with the long career ahead of him, and Rick Hahn did the thing teams trying to win it all do, trading the promising youngster for the dependable veteran.

Instead of a hired gun, though, Lynn's become a fixture. He said during the summer, after signing a contract extension that will keep him here for at least two more years, that the South Side feels more like a home than anywhere else he's pitched in his decade-long big league career. He's won over countless White Sox fans with his mound presence and press-conference one-liners, not to mention that "Free Britney" T-shirt.

But he's won over his teammates, too, by bringing in not only a much needed talent and reliability to the rotation, but by taking an instant leadership role and earning the respect of every other pitcher on the team.

"Lance is an absolute bulldog. He never ever succumbs to pressure or a tough situation," Giolito told NBC Sports Chicago last month. "He leaves it all out there every single time. He's made significant, mind-blowingly good starts despite not feeling well physically all year. ... The guy is just an absolute competitor. I've been learning so much from him. I'm so glad that he signed on to stay a little bit longer.

"As far as the playoffs go, he's that dude that's going to will it, you know? And that's a great guy to have, both when he's pitching and when he's not pitching. The dugout presence, making sure the rest of us starting pitchers are in the game, paying attention, supporting our teammates, just kind of holding us all accountable, both verbally and through his own actions."

Lynn's presence has been critical for a White Sox team that bowed out of the postseason last year when they had no third starting-pitching option to turn to. Now, they've got a dependable force who won't let La Russa take him out of the game.

And he's won over fans, inspired his teammates and, apparently, not made many friends in opposing uniforms along the way.

"He's up there to do his job, and it doesn't matter what the cost is, he's going to get the job done," Cease said. "And he doesn't care — not that it would hurt anyone's feelings — but he doesn't care what anyone thinks, how anyone feels.

"He's up there like, 'Hey, I'm about to dominate, and there's nothing you can do about it.'"

'When the pressure's on, he brings it'

White Sox fans might not want to remember how last October played out. But they should want to remember Giolito's performance in Game 1 of the AL Wild Card Series. Because it was an all-timer.

"Man, that was about as good as I've ever seen him," Cease said. "He's the type of guy that when the pressure's on, he brings it."

Giolito took a perfect-game bid into the seventh inning, dominating the Oakland Athletics so impressively that Tim Anderson had to coin a new term for what it's like when the South Side ace goes off.

"He goes into like a bully stage," the White Sox shortstop said that day.

Well, the White Sox have seen "bully stage" quite often this season, particularly in the second half. Giolito wasn't happy with how his first half went — he had a 4.15 ERA at the All-Star break — and vowed to be better down the stretch. In the second half, he posted a 2.65 ERA.

But what stood out most was the types of performances he was having against fellow contending clubs. He started his post-break tear with a complete-game effort against the Houston Astros, who the White Sox will see in the ALDS, allowing just one run and only three hits. He followed that up with six innings of one-run ball against the eventual National League Central-champion Milwaukee Brewers. In August, he had a stellar seven innings of work against the best-in-the-AL Tampa Bay Rays and backed that up with six strong ones against the Toronto Blue Jays, who narrowly missed extending their season past Game 162.

Like Cease said, when the lights got their brightest, Giolito delivered.

"Especially in the second half, he's looked great," Cease said. "He attacks hitter, he gets swings and misses. I feel like he's been the guy that he's been expected to be and he expects himself to be.

"I think it's just competitiveness. It's being able to bring out your best when it's needed and when the pressure's on. I think it's one of those you can't teach, either. You either have it or you don't, and he's definitely a fighter."

Of course, while the 2020 performance in Oakland inspires confidence that Giolito can be a dominant ace throughout this year's postseason, he's not exactly longing for what happened last year. The White Sox' run lasted all of three games, after all. And as the starting pitcher who's been around this team the longest and a guy who hasn't been shy about verbalizing the team's sky-high expectations, it makes perfect sense that he'd like to make his previous playoff effort a footnote rather than a headline.

"I'm excited this year because I think we have a better overall team going into playoffs," Giolito said. "Last year, it was just that little taste, but it leaves you wanting more. And that's kind of the feeling we have, not just me but the team as a whole.

"We want to go and get the whole thing. Last year was fun, but it was short lived."

'You'll just see the utter domination'

Cease has come a long way.

At this time last year, Cease was passed over for the start in Game 3 of the AL Wild Card Series, the White Sox opting for Dunning, who threw all of 15 pitches and got only two outs before the parade of relievers started and the team was eliminated thanks to an absence of a reliable third starting-pitching option behind Giolito and Dallas Keuchel.

Now, he is that third option.

Rodón has had the better season, when he's been on the mound, but Cease currently boasts more dependable health status, even after being hit in the arm with a batted ball in Cleveland, and has been strong down the stretch. Take out a seven-run clunker against the Boston Red Sox, and Cease had a 2.48 ERA in his other 10 starts in August and September.

And the strikeouts, oh, the strikeouts.

A double play might be a pitcher's best friend, but strikeouts make a team's life a heck of a lot easier. Cease K'd 226 hitters during the regular season, the most on the team and the seventh most in the majors this year. In the AL, he trailed only Toronto's Robbie Ray and Gerrit Cole of the New York Yankees, the two guys who could top the Cy Young vote.

"We all know how talented he is, he has the best stuff in the big leagues," Giolito said. "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."

Of course, you can't praise the evolution Cease has gone through without mentioning first-year pitching coach Ethan Katz, who worked with Cease for months and helped work a similar kind of magic to what he did with Giolito back before the 2019 season.

"That's a guy who was eager to learn from the get-go and trying to get better," Lynn said of Cease in an interview with NBC Sports Chicago. "He's got great stuff, obviously. It's electric."

Who knows how things will play out with Rodón, who La Russa referred to as "the great unknown" the other day. But if Cease is the one to get the call in an important game, with the White Sox' season on the line, the feelings of last year won't be anywhere to be found.

Everyone will have confidence in Cease.

"Last year, it was always a battle, right?" Giolito said. "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."

'The most impressive pitching I've ever seen in my life'

Rodón is a mystery.

What's not at all mysterious, of course, is what he's been able to do this season when he's been on the mound. He's pitched at a Cy Young-caliber level, with a 2.37 ERA and 185 strikeouts in 132.2 innings. Not at all bad for someone the White Sox non-tendered in December.

Of course, the conversation about his health — which he lamented had been the headline of his career prior to this year — has once again popped up. On the eve of the postseason, the White Sox are attempting to figure out what their left-hander can give them. La Russa said a while ago the team would take whatever it can get from Rodón, even if that was just a handful of innings.

He shut out the Cincinnati Reds in five innings of work in his final start of the regular season, again showing how good he's been this year. But that wasn't met with much optimism or pessimism from the manager, rather just a "we'll see." The general manager was more confidence-inspiring when he spoke Monday, expressing optimism that Rodón would be able to contribute in October.

And if he can? Well, then the White Sox will have a championship-caliber rotation.

"You've got a lefty that has the ability to get it up to 100 miles an hour. You don't find many of those," Lynn said. "So if he's capable of doing that in the playoffs, he's going to be hard to handle."

Rodón has been consistently great all season long. He tossed a no-hitter against the Cleveland Indians in his second start of the campaign, and he seemed to be on no-hit watch for a large swath of what followed.

Much like Giolito, Rodón delivered against fellow contenders. He threw six scoreless innings at Yankee Stadium, allowing just two hits and striking out 13. He was the only one of the four White Sox pitchers who threw in the four-game series in Houston to make it more than four innings, allowing one run and only three hits in seven innings. Then, when the Astros came to the South Side, he cranked things up even more, throwing seven scoreless, one-hit innings and striking out 10.

"Watching Carlos go out — his starts against the Yankees and the Astros, where he's punching (out) 12, 13 — it was the most impressive pitching I've ever seen in my life, to be honest. Best stuff I've pretty much ever seen," Cease said. "That was one of the most impressive displays I've ever seen."

It's what makes Rodón's left shoulder so important. Yes, the White Sox have three other high quality starting pitchers. Yes, they have alternatives they can turn to like Keuchel, Reynaldo López and even Michael Kopech for a few innings. But Rodón, with the way he's pitched this season, can turn the White Sox rotation from very, very good to nearly untouchable.

That's what wins a World Series.

'We've got a lot to prove in the playoffs'

Of course, there's only one of these four guys with more than a single playoff appearance under his belt.

Lynn's been there, winning a World Series as a rookie with La Russa and the St. Louis Cardinals in 2011. He returned to the postseason in each of the following four years and once again with the Yankees in 2018. He knows what it takes to win it all, and he knows that as good as these White Sox pitchers look on paper, they have to go out and show it.

"We've got a lot to prove in the playoffs, to be honest with you. There's no other way to say it," Lynn said. "It doesn't matter what you've done in the regular season or what you've done in years past. The only thing that matters is the present. We've got a lot to prove, and we're going to have tough lineups to face."

That might not be the same tune someone like Giolito sings, when the confidence of the White Sox' youngsters shines through and he talks about how the team is capable of winning the World Series. But it's not inaccurate, and it comes with veteran experience.

There's the confidence of having a talented group, a set of dependable arms, the ability to shut down any lineup.

And then there's the action of going out and besting the Astros, who tagged Cease, Lynn and Keuchel for a combined 15 earned runs in June.

It's more than a bit of a mystery how the White Sox, in general, will fare in the postseason. They spent the year feasting on a less-than-challenging AL Central but showed time and again how talented they are. One thing's certain, though: If they make it as far as they hope to, it will be because the starting pitching came through.

But Lynn's going to stick to his way of thinking, regardless of how many friends it makes him.

"You're looking at a team that — when's the last time we won a playoff series?" he said. "A lot of s--t to prove."

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