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Pitch Switch

Pitchers are odd creatures who have chosen an exceptionally challenging and difficult task. We ask them to hurl an approximately five-ounce sphere with a circumference of about nine inches up to 100 miles per hour with accuracy and movement. Some attempt to perfect a more leisurely approach of dips and curves at a slower speed, all destined to trick the foe into a mind game of guessing.

A batter stands at home plate every other inning or maybe once in three innings. No such luxury for the poor pitchers. Nothing happens until the ball leaves their hand either from the right or left side. Whether the ball winds up in the catcher's mitt for strike three or in the centerfield bleachers, there always is another batter striding to home plate. The job is not to be envied.

Last weekend's three-game series between the Cubs and Sox portrayed this drama with clarity and suspense. The Cubs' Alec Mills and the Sox's Reynaldo Lopez excelled at the craft of major league pitching. Mills used an assortment of slow stuff Saturday for 8⅓ innings, blanking the team that had scored 17 times 12 hours earlier. Lopez transformed the game on Friday night by retiring all 14 hitters he faced. The enforced moratorium enabled Lopez's mates to slug the ball all over The Grate, overcoming what was initially a 6-0 deficit.

Meanwhile, veterans Dallas Keuchel of the Sox and Kyle Hendricks from the Cubs were treated harshly whereby all their cunning and expertise went for naught. One might have thought that Keuchel and Hendricks were going to shine while Mills and Lopez would be routed early, but that's why they play the games.

Friday night's four-hour, nine-minute marathon featured 12 pitchers - seven employed by the North Side visitors - who delivered an astounding 382 pitches. Thirty runs were scored along with 28 hits, 14 strikeouts, 12 walks, and six home runs.

Keuchel was absolutely dismal, a pattern that has become far too familiar for Sox fans. When Sox skipper Tony La Russa trudged to the mound to remove the veteran lefty in the top of the second, the boos rained down from all corners of The Grate.

La Russa summoned Lopez, a fellow who basically pitched himself into oblivion in spring training. With Lopez mowing down the opposition, the Sox wasted no time by scoring eight runs in the third inning for a 9-6 lead.

What also is noteworthy is that the three Sox pitchers - Mike Wright Jr., Garrett Crochet and Craig Kimbrel - who followed Lopez had about as much luck as Keuchel as the Cubs scored seven times in the final three innings for the final 17-13 count.

Granted that the Sox attacked Cub pitching for 15 hits, highlighted by the return of catcher Yasmani Grandal, who launched two homers and drove in eight runs, but without Lopez stymieing the foe, the outcome would have been in doubt.

Keuchel and Lopez appear to be on antithetical paths. Last season few pitchers were more effective than Keuchel over the 60-game schedule. He started 11 games, going 6-2 with an ERA of 1.99 (3.08 FIP), third in all of baseball to the two Cy Young Award winners, Trevor Bauer and Shane Bieber. In 63⅓ innings, Keuchel was nicked for just two home runs in this homer-happy era. So far this season Keuchel has given up 23 round-trippers in 136⅔ innings.

In June of this season in five starts, Keuchel won two of three decisions with an ERA of 2.70, lowering his season mark at that time to 3.96. In his 10 assignments the past two months, Keuchel has pitched just one game in which he was effective, a seven-inning stint against the woefully weak Baltimore Orioles that the Sox won 12-1. Today his ERA sits at 5.00 (5.28 FIP). His status for post-season play is questionable. Without the need of a five-man rotation, Keuchel will be the odd-man out.

So what happened? Keuchel says he's healthy and seems as puzzled by his ineptitude as La Russa or pitching coach Ethan Katz. Perhaps he's simply tired or maybe at age 33, his career is in jeopardy. We've seen this before.

As mentioned, Hendricks has a similar style to Keuchel. Both have to hit their spots with a mix of pitches. Hendricks was inconsistent on Saturday and eventually succumbed to the Sox attack in the fifth inning after Eloy Jiménez's three-run homer made the score 8-1.

Hendricks has been far more effective this season than Keuchel, but he paid for his mistakes Sunday as Luis Robert and Brian Goodwin also homered off the Cub ace.

As robust as the Sox attack was on Friday and Sunday, the slow-baller Mills completely baffled the South Siders on Saturday as the Cubs won 7-0. A week prior against Kansas City, Mills was battered for seven runs in four innings. But not Saturday, when he fanned just three hitters but primarily kept the Sox sluggers off-balance with an assortment of pitches in a variety of locations. The guy has had a checkered career pitching on the North Side for parts of the last four seasons. His no-hitter against the Brewers last September obviously has been the high point, but Saturday's performance must rank as No. 2.

Lopez, meanwhile, has been as effective as any Sox hurler since he was recalled from Charlotte in mid-July. He's appeared in 13 games, four as a starter, amassing 34 innings of work in which he given up only 17 hits while striking out 37 and walking only seven. His ERA stands at a sparkling 1.59 (2.75 FIP).

Keuchel's precipitous fall from grace is as confusing as Lopez's emergence as an effective big league pitcher. Since the Sox traded for him five years ago in the Adam Eaton deal with Washington, Lopez has been tagged as a guy with a huge upside who's never come close to realizing his potential. Can this be the real Reynaldo Lopez we've been seeing?

That question has as much chance of being answered as, "Is this the end of Dallas Keuchel?"

History tells us that outstanding pitchers are not always dominant from the outset. Nurturing, experience, and maturation all play a part. Sandy Koufax, the greatest pitcher I ever saw, was 36-40 with a 4.10 ERA in his first six seasons (he came up as a rookie when he was 19) and then went 129-47 and 2.19 in his final six campaigns.

Nolan Ryan also debuted at 19 and had a 29-38 record in his first five seasons in which he walked more than six batters per nine innings, a statistic that stayed with him his entire 27-year career. However, he used his wildness to his advantage since most every batter he faced battled fear as well as another mortal human being. Ryan's 2,795 walks are the most all-time but so are his 5,714 strikeouts.

We'll just have to wait to see what the future holds for Lopez, and, for that matter, Keuchel, who is contracted to earn $18 million from the Sox next season.

What we can count on is that the White Sox pitching staff will dictate how far this club will go in 2021. With the healthy lineup that they now display, La Russa's charges will score often. However, when they run into a guy like Mills on Saturday, it won't matter that they have all these potent bats. They'll need pitchers who can match someone like Mills. I kind of like the prospect both of the Sox starters and the bullpen. But we're talking pitchers here, and, for better or worse, surprises occur on a regular basis.


Former Bill Veeck bar buddy Roger Wallenstein is our White Sox correspondent. He welcomes your comments.

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