Against the Orioles on Sunday, Dylan Cease threw a career-high 113 pitches in six innings. His offense spotted him four runs in the first inning. Based on those things alone, the White Sox should have cruised to their first series victory of the season.
Instead, familiar pitching problems continued to fester.
Cease’s pitch count went up so high in part because he gave up five walks (one was intentional), and that was part of the larger problem that buried the Sox in this weekend series. The pitching staff as a whole issued 26 free passes to Baltimore the past three games. Even in Saturday’s extra-inning win, they walked 10 Oriole batters. That game should have been an easier win for the White Sox, but those extra baserunners helped create the situation where they had to come from behind four times and win in extras.
Before Sunday’s game, they had the second highest rate of walks per nine innings (5.08). For comparison, the Twins’ BB/9 rate is less than half that, at 2.28, and the Sox are one of only two teams over five walks per nine innings.
“It’s concerning for this series,” manager Pedro Grifol said.
Sox pitching coaches Ethan Katz and Curt Hasler spent all winter with the staff working on getting two out of the first three pitches thrown in the strike zone, Grifol said.
“And that’s what I think our, the most important thing to our success is, we win the two out of three battle for the day we probably have a good chance to win a baseball game. If we lose that battle, we’re going to be in trouble.”
And though all members of the pitching corps have contributed to the walks problem, the bullpen’s overall struggles have been a major part of why the Sox have yet to win a series or even two games in a row this season.
When Cease reached the sixth inning Sunday, he was holding on to a 4-3 lead. He walked Gunnar Henderson with one out, which set Henderson up to eventually score the game-tying run on a wild pitch. Three of Cease’s five walks (including the intentional pass) came in the sixth inning, and given that his pitch count was so high, this would have been a logical place for manager Pedro Grifol to go to his bullpen.
Instead, Grifol left Cease out there, and though he got out of the inning after Henderson scored, the Sox’ 4-0 lead from the first inning was gone. Arguably, Grifol’s hands were somewhat tied. His bullpen had been taxed in Saturday’s game; he had to use six different relievers to get through the last five innings.
And taxed or not, Grifol’s bullpen has been bad, so Cease’s high pitch count was at least partially a product of unreliable relief pitching. That group has a 7.32 ERA and is responsible for a large part of the high walk rate for the pitching staff as a whole.
Still, it was somewhat evident that Cease was not his best self all afternoon Sunday, and it was clear that he could have used some help in the sixth inning in particular. But Grifol, perhaps thinking at least a little about the trustworthiness of his bullpen, stuck with his ace anyway.
“Dylan is one of the best pitchers in baseball,” he said. “He had enough pitches to go into that sixth and finish the sixth. I’d do it again tomorrow.”
Cease’s overall velocity was down all game, and he gave up an uncharacteristically high number of hits, but he still kept a disciplined Orioles lineup to four runs in six innings.
“I can only speak for me,” Cease said of his struggles Sunday. “I think I need to adjust a little bit quicker and just see where my misses are. Which I don’t feel I did a great job of that today. Just in general, walks will really kill you.”
The work initiated by Katz and Hasler in the offseason clearly isn’t done. This is only just over two weeks into the season, but the Sox have yet to fire on all cylinders as a team, continuing from where they left off in 2022. Most recently, it’s been the pitching staff putting too much traffic on the bases.
“Obviously we need to do a better job staying in the strike zone and attacking guys,” Yasmani Grandal said. “The good thing is it’s happening now and not later in the year. We are going to address that early instead of late.
“Making them swing the bat more than anything. We’ve seen the number and when we’ve done that, we’ve had success. We just have to attack them a little bit more in the strike zone.”
Sox fans can be forgiven for thinking that this all feels too familiar. The woes of last season have not ended. Different people are in key roles with the team, but the problems still look the same. Against the Orioles, they lost two games because of poor pitching centered on too many walks, and the Sox made Saturday’s win a challenge because of the same thing.
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