Dylan Cease so badly wanted to pitch in the playoffs in 2021, the reward at the end of a season full of progress, a year after he was passed over for a postseason start against the A’s.
That reward, though, was a date with the Astros, baseball’s best-run ship, cheating scandal and all.
They did to Cease what they did to the rest of the White Sox’ starting rotation in that series, bashing him around the yard and booting him from Game 3 of the ALDS — the only one in the series the South Siders won — before he could get six outs.
Cease, of course, has come a mighty long way since that October day. And now no one knows it quite as much as those same Astros.
It wasn’t exactly a revenge game, but boy, did Cease stand tall on Opening Day, helping set the White Sox up for a 3-2 win over the defending champs. He carved up a stacked lineup that was without longtime franchise face José Altuve but debuted the White Sox’ longtime franchise face, José Abreu. After yielding a leadoff single to Jeremy Peña in the first inning, Cease retired 19 straight, striking out more than half of those to match a club record with 10 Ks in his team’s first game of the season.
Simply, Cease was out-of-this-world good on Thursday night in Space City. If the White Sox stepped into the 2023 season with a “prove it” mindset, Cease set an electric “prove it” tone, showing that a team with this kind of elite pitching can go far — and showing that his Cy Young runner-up season in 2022 was no fluke, that he is truly one of the best pitchers in baseball.
Obviously, this wasn’t Cease’s first dance with the Astros, not even since he vaulted into the realm of the game’s top arms. He faced off against first-ballot Hall of Famer Justin Verlander last summer on the South Side, a much-hyped “battle for the Cy Young.” Though neither really emerged victorious from that duel, and though the White Sox won that game, Verlander ended up winning the award.
The Astros’ rotation is Verlander-less nowadays, otherwise it would have been another battle between the two Thursday. Verlander’s defection to the NL alone should have left Cease as the preseason favorite to win the award in 2023.
But of course there are other ridiculously good pitchers out there, and several of them pitch for the Astros. Cease’s opponent in the opener, Framber Valdez, is one of those Houston-based Cy Young contenders and had some folks — cough, cough — picking him to best Cease over the course of the season. After all, while Cease was going 14 straight games without allowing more than one earned run last summer, Valdez was on a jaw-dropper of a hot streak, too, logging 25 consecutive quality starts.
Not so, though, Thursday, as Valdez didn’t make it past the fifth inning. Though the White Sox didn’t score against him — or score at all till the eighth inning — they made him look mortal, knocking out six hits and running the pitch count up to a degree (85 pitches in five innings) that he made a relatively swift exit, his last act getting Eloy Jiménez to come up empty with the bases loaded for the first of two times in the game.
Cease, meanwhile, dominated the Astros, and it was as good a job as he could have done in planting his flag as the man to beat in the AL Cy Young race. You might point out Gerrit Cole’s higher strikeout total, 11, in the Yankees’ win over the Giants or the typical breathtakingness of Angels superstar Shohei Ohtani, who also struck out 10 while getting a hit and a walk as a batter, too. But Cease, surprisingly, did something neither of those two guys did: He didn’t issue a single walk.
That’s of significant note, considering Cease was the Cy Young runner-up a year ago while leading baseball with 78 free passes. Thursday night, against one of baseball’s finest offenses? Goose egg. That’s what Cease wanted to achieve this year, a significant reduction in walks, to help him get even better than the mastery he showed in 2022. Consider this one heck of a first step toward that goal.
Thursday, Cease didn’t allow a peep till he hit Yordan Álvarez with one out in the seventh inning and gave up a single to — who else? — Abreu, bringing Pedro Grifol out with the hook for his ace at 86 pitches. It sure seemed like Cease could have kept going, considering the pitch count and the sheer dominance he displayed for 19 straight batters. But hey, it’s Game 1 of 162, I get it.
Even as Aaron Bummer struggled in relief of Cease and the White Sox’ ace was, briefly, on the hook for the loss, it was a shining night for the righty, bolstered by the combined late-inning heroics of Yasmani Grandal and Andrew Vaughn, who came up with a game-tying homer and a go-ahead, two-run double, respectively, in the eighth and ninth innings.
But while those clutch moments papered over a free-swinging offensive night that was pretty reminiscent of 2022 — featuring a 1-for-10 mark with runners in scoring position and 11 men left on base — Cease brought the brightest spot of last season to mind, as well, with another stellar performance that ranked up there with the best ones he turned in last summer.
A win was worth celebrating in the White Sox’ clubhouse, sure, though who knows how much they actually accomplished on the “prove it” front Thursday. What we do know, though, is that this team has one hell of an ace at the front of the starting rotation.
And if the White Sox are fortunate enough to get back to October this year, not even a meeting with the vaunted Astros will be too much for Cease.