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Two outs into the sixth inning of the White Sox’ 3-2 win over the Rays on Friday, White Sox manager Tony La Russa faced the question that is hanging over the heads of all 30 managers this April. Even when your starter is in command of the game and cruising, when do you have to think about the bigger picture and pull him anyway?
Thanks to the three-week spring training this year, one of the major concerns this early in the season is how to manage pitchers’ workloads. That concern gets amplified for teams expecting to be a part of the postseason, like the White Sox.
Cease’s 5 ⅔ inning start was the deepest a Sox starter has gone in a game so far this season. He left the mound with 91 pitches, 63 of them for strikes. He punctuated his eight-strikeout night with a 97.5 MPH fastball that sailed past Randy Arozarena’s bat. Cease looked like he could go a little further at that point, but manager Tony La Russa turned things over to the bullpen.
“He just, he had enough,” La Russa said. “That would have been a big mistake to let him pitch to the last guy. In the danger zone as far as pushing him.”
For his part, Cease said he understands La Russa’s decision at this point in the season, even if he felt like he could have gone longer.
“You kind of know what to expect with it,” Cease said. “I think it’s honestly the smart thing to do, especially with the short buildup.”
All night, Cease mostly left Rays batters looking hapless. Only Manuel Margot’s fifth-inning single had an exit velocity over 100 miles per hour; otherwise, Tampa Bay had a lot of awkward swings and weak contact. Two starts in, and Cease is pitching like an ace. He struck out eight for the second start in a row and said he felt even better in Friday’s start.
“I thought my command and feel was a lot better,” Cease said. “I was executing more consistently and I felt like I was able to drive the ball where I wanted to, whereas my first start was a little bit erratic at times.”
Cease had his command working against the Rays. He didn’t issue his first walk until the fourth inning. Wander Franco had two singles, but otherwise only Manuel Margot managed to get a hit. Cease left the game with Ji-Man Choi and Yandy Diaz coming to the plate; those two hit back-to-back doubles off of reliever Aaron Bummer. Against Cease, Choi’s fourth-inning walk was the only time either of them reached base at all. It’s not certain that Cease’s success against them would have continued the third time through, but his fastball was still flirting with 98 in the sixth inning.
“He was at the point where any kind of stress in that sixth inning, he was going to reach back for extra,” La Russa said. “Pitch count was just one factor. He had to work a lot, it was a close game. It was, err on the side of caution. You don’t push him. This is his second start of the season. You want him to be able to stay healthy [and] strong right through.”
Pulling Cease is a move La Russa might not make so quickly later in the season, but as with all of his pitchers, La Russa has to consider whether the extra stress of facing another batter or two is worth it in the long run for Cease. Especially given the injuries to Lance Lynn and Lucas Giolito that have at least temporarily made Cease the front man of the White Sox starting rotation.
Cease has been in the league since 2019, but last year was his first taste of a full season. In many ways, he might have still felt like a rookie, but La Russa was still struck by his composure.
“In his rough moments, he always would get back on track. He was a finisher, and throughout the year, he kept improving,” La Russa said of his 2021 season.
From there, Cease has been building on last year’s success — when he quietly tallied 226 strikeouts, good for 7th in baseball — and carrying it over into this season. After two starts, Cease already has 16 strikeouts.
“He came into spring training and I think maybe the first batting practice he threw, he wasn’t that good. But after that, he’s a quick study with a lot of talent. That’s the best way to describe it,” La Russa said.
Even though Cease is thriving in his first two starts, the long-term health of his arm has to be considered in April because there is the expectation that the Sox will be playing in the postseason again this fall. In 2021, arm and shoulder fatigue hurt the Sox down the stretch and impacted them in the division series against the Astros.
Cease would like to still be on the mound in the seventh or eighth inning as the season progresses, but it’s not time for that yet. In April, balancing getting wins with preserving arm health is the concern. Last season, he threw 165 ⅔ innings at the major league level. That’s more than twice what he did in 2019 and 2020 combined, so stretching him beyond the sixth inning might not happen for a while.
“I think it’s more of a plan thing. It’s kind of just something that we’re kind of going to ride with for now,” Cease said.
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