Johnny Cueto wanted to see more fire from the White Sox.
He got exactly what he wanted.
The White Sox registered perhaps their biggest win of the season Monday night, defeating the best-in-the-AL Astros in a comeback effort, scoring four times with two outs in the bottom of the eighth inning to flip a 2-0 deficit into a 4-2 victory.
Cueto, as has become commonplace, was outstanding. He pitched eight innings. He allowed one earned run. He worked out of jams. He shut down one of the best teams in baseball.
But Cueto’s out-of-nowhere renaissance of an age-36 season has been defined as much by a lack of run support from the White Sox’ mostly disappointing offense as it has by his incredibly impressive ability to deliver a masterful outing every five days.
In other words, the consistency with which he’s pitched has been matched by the consistency with which his teammates haven’t been able to score runs. Coming into Monday night, he’d made four starts since the All-Star break, with the White Sox scoring a total of 12 runs in those four games.
Through seven and a half innings Monday, they scored zero.
Cueto serving as a one-man show in so many of his starts this year forced him to raise a challenge last week in Kansas City, when the White Sox scored only three runs in a loss to the Royals. Cueto said the team needed to show more fire.
It was music to the ears of plenty of White Sox fans, who have bemoaned a perceived lack of desire and energy from their favorite players this season, which of course started with championship-level expectations and has been woefully disappointing to this point, the team sitting at third place in the AL Central standings and just now making some headway in a summerlong quest to get over .500.
Whether that perceived lifelessness was actually there or not – players have pointed out that it’s understandably hard to have fun and energy when you’re losing – those fans have found an in-clubhouse spokesman in Cueto. Whether the urgency fans have demanded from these White Sox has been present all along behind closed doors or not, they are getting some vocalized urgency from Cueto.
Who knows if this team actually needed to be whipped into shape. But Cueto, the mid-30s pitcher inked to a minor league deal back in April, is the one trying to rally the troops with his every-five-days postgame comments.
“Yes, definitely,” Cueto said through team interpreter Billy Russo, asked if he saw the fire he was looking for from the White Sox on Monday night. “That’s what we need to do in every game, just try to compete and have the same energy level and excitement that we had today.
“We need every win, and that was a good one. All these games are playoff games, and we need to be prepared to compete.”
White Sox fans don’t even need to hear what Cueto’s saying after games, they just need to watch him pitch. He’s become the definition of dependability in a rotation that’s seen its two most reliable arms struggle to find themselves this season. While Dylan Cease has put up numbers that could win him the Cy Young Award, Cueto has been equally impressive with how he’s pitched, efficiently and decidedly.
Cueto got into some first-inning trouble against the Astros, a leadoff single becoming exponentially worse when a ball got past Josh Harrison and went for an error. A sacrifice fly brought the leadoff man home from third, and an ensuing double scored the runner who reached on Harrison’s miscue.
Cueto, though, was not troubled by Harrison making his job harder.
“It wasn’t a good start for us, but it wasn’t his fault, (either),” Cueto said. “After that error, I said, ‘Fuck it, let’s keep competing,’ and I was able to get out of that inning just with two runs.”
“You can’t faze him,” Tony La Russa said of Cueto.
Not even when the team leader calls you off for a pop up, apparently. At one point, Cueto came together with José Abreu on the infield, Abreu eventually calling off the pitcher to haul in a pop up. The two had a somewhat extended conversation about it before the next at-bat.
A chuckling Cueto revealed after the game that he told Abreu he wanted a shot at the ball – so he could let it drop and try to trick the runners into a double play.
“(Cueto has) done a great job for us,” Yoán Moncada, whose two-run single won the game for the White Sox in the eighth, said through Russo. “Every outing, he has given us a chance to win and to compete.
“We haven’t been able to support him in every one of his outings, but today was one where we were able to come back and get this win for him, too. It was good. He has been, definitely, very good for us. He has done a very, very good job.”
We’ve heard, too, how Cueto has impacted his teammates, whether as a model and a resource to young pitchers – or as an unwanted hitting coach, offering tips to the White Sox’ position players despite his career .101 batting average from his days in the National League.
It’s hard to say whether Cueto’s call to action has sparked the White Sox. Asked Monday night about Cueto’s comments from last week, Moncada said it was the first time he had heard of them. A day earlier, though, Andrew Vaughn – who came through with another clutch hit Monday, doubling ahead of Eloy Jiménez’s game-tying double – referenced them, unprompted, when discussing the White Sox’ just completed sweep of the visiting Tigers.
“Johnny said it best: ‘I want some more fire,’” Vaughn said. “And we had some fire.”
Now, whether elected or not, Cueto is becoming a team spokesman of sorts, one of the few shaking things up with comments that differ from the “it’ll happen eventually” mantra that most of the team has stuck to for months.
And who knows, maybe this is the much ballyhooed “back of the baseball card” finally coming to life. Maybe it’s just a few good days in August.
Thanks to equally unimpressive play this season from the Guardians and Twins, the White Sox remain in the thick of the AL Central race. But that, too, obscures the team’s one true goal from here on out: winning. That’s it.
“We have to forget where we are right now,” Cueto said. “We just have to keep playing hard and try to win every game. We don’t have to be looking at the standings right now. We have to play hard and see what will happen at the end.”
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