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Dallas Keuchel’s role magnified as White Sox work through ‘teeter-totter season’

Vinnie Duber Avatar
April 14, 2022

Aside from picking up the 100th win of his career, Dallas Keuchel wasn’t exactly thrilled Wednesday night. He wished he could have thrown more than five innings, a recurring complaint for someone with high personal standards.

But for a change, fans likely were pleased with what Keuchel did.

“It’s probably a good feeling for the fans,” he said after the White Sox grabbed a 6-4 win over the Mariners, “because it wasn’t a good couple of months after the All-Star break last year.”

Yes, Keuchel didn’t need the constant reminders fans provided over the offseason, when merely mentioning his name was enough to start a Twitter firestorm. The veteran left-hander, inked to that pricey free-agent deal before the 2020 season, had the worst year of his career, statistically, finishing 2021 with a 5.28 ERA, 25 home runs allowed, 59 batters walked and no spot on the White Sox’ playoff roster.

It was atypical Keuchel, who has a Cy Young Award, a World Series ring and a closet full of Gold Gloves on his resume. In fact, “atypical” might have been the best way to define 2021 for Keuchel, who has since reflected on not feeling himself on the mound, whether because of health, performance, fatigue, bad luck or a sinister combination of everything.

After Wednesday, though, he was happy to report he was feeling normal again.

“I feel normal, so that’s a good sign,” Keuchel said. “Spring training is spring training, and I knew coming in I felt good so I wasn’t really trying to push it. But I wanted to progress, and I felt like I was. I just wanted to come out and feel the game flow as is.

“It was just nice to command stuff again, get ahead of guys knowing the confidence was building and building all spring training. Even though some of the results weren’t there, it felt good physically.”

Though three runs in five innings is no reason to clear space on the mantle, all this is an extremely welcome sign for the White Sox, who were already confident in a bounce-back campaign for Keuchel but now sorely need one. A shortened spring training has limited pitchers’ workloads across the game – best evidenced by Clayton Kershaw getting yanked from his perfecto bid after seven innings Wednesday afternoon – providing an early season test for baseball’s bullpens.

But it’s especially the case on the South Side, where the rotation’s top two pitchers, Lucas Giolito and Lance Lynn, are on the IL and another, Michael Kopech, is under some strict workload management.

Before the injuries, a good season from Keuchel would have made a huge difference in the White Sox’ ability to reach their championship-level goals. But boosted from No. 5 starter to a top-three guy – and one of the only arms in the rotation who can provide consistent depth in starts – Keuchel has become downright critical, particularly in the season’s opening weeks.

“It’s a big test for anybody, especially losing two guys (who placed in the top 11) in Cy Young voting,” Keuchel said Tuesday. “We’re going to have to have a guy to two step up for, hopefully, for a few weeks.

“It’s going to be a little taxing. … Hopefully, it’s kind of a teeter-totter (situation), where (the bullpen guys) step up here for a couple weeks and then the starters take over for five months.”

Indeed, the bullpen has stepped up through the season’s first five games.

While Liam Hendriks has given up a run in each of the three appearances he’s made, there’s little to be worried about when it comes to the game’s best closer. The other guys have answered the bell in mostly spectacular fashion, whether usual suspects like Kendall Graveman and Aaron Bummer, hoped-for contributors like Reynaldo López and José Ruiz, or out-of-nowhere success stories like Kyle Crick, Bennett Sousa and Tanner Banks.

But as they say, it’s a team effort, and while the pitching staff tries to piece things together, the White Sox can count on their bats to shoulder the immediate load, as well.

The offense went to work against reigning Cy Young winner Robbie Ray on Wednesday, tagging him for a trio of home runs and six runs total, all the more impressive considering the way he bullied them in a couple of 2021 starts, striking out 27 guys in 13.1 innings.

“We’re very fortunate to have a pretty stout lineup,” Keuchel said Tuesday. “I think we (match up) well with anybody. And if we’ve got to play five-hour games and win 10-9 and 12-10, so be it. At least we’re going to win.

“I know the guys in the lineup are feeling a certain way. They know it’s a little teeter-totter season, as well. We’re going to have to ride the wave, but hopefully come October, we’re in a lot better position than we were last year.”

Keuchel is hoping, of course, that he’s in a good enough position to pitch come October. He’s expressed repeatedly how he was affected by being left off the team’s playoff roster, citing his reason for being here to pitch in the playoffs and add to his jewelry collection. A sour second half prevented him from doing that last year.

He doesn’t need the reminder.

“If I could tell you how many times I’ve lost confidence throughout the course of a season, it’s up there,” he said. “That’s just how difficult this game is. It’s nothing out of the ordinary for anybody to have a lack of confidence. This game is very humbling. But it’s just like one pitch, one outing, one inning kind of corrals you back – or humbles you even more. That’s why I like this game so much.

“There’s multiples times where I thought it was the end of the tunnel (for my career), (such as in my) upper 20s. Then I thought I found the fountain of youth (in my) lower 30s. So last year, I never thought it was the end of the tunnel because of the lack of physical effort that I was putting into it. … But also, I wasn’t really thinking the proper way and keeping my body in shape. It was kind of one of those weird things (where) you’re so used to one thing, and you get off that program and all hell breaks loose.”

That’s exactly what the White Sox can’t afford this season. Keuchel is needed to deliver a strong first half to help buoy the rotation and keep those World Series dreams afloat.

To borrow his metaphor, he’s on the weighty end of the teeter-totter right now. Lynn and Giolito will be back – heck, Lynn’s ahead of schedule in his recovery, already playing catch while he’s still got stitches in – the bullpen will get its eventual breather, and the bats will keep on bopping.

But Keuchel is among those guys who really need to step up right now while the White Sox navigate their way through a seemingly ridiculous amount of injuries.

Wednesday was a good start.

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