White Sox fifth starter battle still coming into focus

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White Sox fifth starter battle still coming into focus

MESA, Ariz. — Erik Johnson and Mat Latos both pitched on Saturday and had mixed results as each right-hander vies to win a spot in the White Sox rotation coming out of spring training. 

Johnson allowed five runs on seven hits in three innings against the Cubs at Sloan Park, and had his fastball sit between 85 and 89 miles per hour, according to a scout. He gave up a solo home run to Dexter Fowler on a fastball low in the zone, and said he’s still working on building up strength in his arm.

“I know I’m not there yet,” Johnson said. “Pitch count-wise I’m getting to where I need to be but as far as innings go, I’d like to achieve more than that. I know the stuff is there. I’m throwing strikes with all of my pitches. The arm strength will come along.”  

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Johnson felt like he was aggressive in the strike zone and threw some good offspeed pitches, but manager Robin Ventura said the 26-year-old fell behind in too many counts Saturday for those pitches to be effective. 

“You can make quality pitches but if you’re doing it in a hitter’s count and it’s not perfect, you’re going to get hit a little bit,” Ventura said. “It’s a good lineup and you just gotta be better early.”

Latos allowed three runs over four innings of work in a B game against the Texas Rangers in surprise Saturday morning, though all three of those tallies came in the first inning (two on a home run). 

An American League scout who watched Latos’ start told CSNChicago.com it was “pretty underwhelming,” though the right-hander said he was more concerned with commanding his fastball in the relatively laid-back setting of a B game. 

“Most importantly I was worried about hitting my spots and hitting each side of the plate with my fastball,” Latos said. “The one big thing we had been working on in my side sessions was big today, able to keep the fastball to the side of the plate I wanted it to. 

“Earlier in the game I threw a couple real nice two-seamers into some righties. (I) threw one that didn’t move at all, made that mistake and it got hit for a home run. But I settled in after that, everything came out of my arm, easy flow, go through the motions and making my pitches.”

Ventura was in attendance for Latos’ outing and said he was “alright,” though noted the 28-year-old ramped up his intensity after giving up those runs in the first inning. 

“After that, the competition part in him came out, which is good,” Ventura said. “A good outing — B games are going to be a little tough to get going, I think once you get knocked around a bit it helps that.” 

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Latos said he wasn’t going to read into the outcome of his start, instead focusing more on how he felt. 

“I could care less about the results,” Latos said. “Come April, I’ll care about the results. From the way it looked, the first inning cost me but the last three were really good.”

Johnson, Latos and right-hander Jacob Turner, who allowed five runs in 4 2/3 innings in his only Cactus League start to date, are battling to win that final spot in the White Sox rotation. All three have had some level of success in the past (Latos had the most, with a 3.27 ERA from 2010-2014) but have struggled in recent years. 

The White Sox have a little over three weeks until Opening Day, with each of those three pitchers getting plenty of opportunities to stake their claim to a gig in the starting rotation. Saturday’s games were just one part of the evaluation process for Ventura, Don Cooper & Co. 

“You have to go out there and pitch well,” Ventura said, answering a question about what Johnson has to do to make the team. “There’s a chance you’re going to make the team, but you just gotta pitch well.”

Miguel Gonzalez throws six perfect innings as White Sox take series against Tigers

Miguel Gonzalez throws six perfect innings as White Sox take series against Tigers

For six innings Sunday, Miguel Gonzalez was perfect.

The White Sox right-hander put the baseball world on perfect-game alert and conjured memories of Mark Buehrle and Philip Humber with his dazzling work through six innings. Gonzalez lost his bids for a perfect game, no hitter and shutout in the span of three batters to lead off the seventh inning, but that didn’t take away much from how good he was in a 7-3 win for the South Siders at Guaranteed Rate Field.

“He was dominant,” shortstop Tim Anderson said, providing an accurate if brief summation of the day’s proceedings.

Gonzalez, who entered with a 3-5 record and a 4.55 ERA in nine previous starts this season, set down the first 18 hitters he faced in order, with the visiting Detroit Tigers rarely even coming close to reaching base. That streak of 18 straight hitters retired to start the game was the longest by a White Sox starter since Chris Sale sat down the first 19 he faced back in May 2013.

Of course, whenever a performance nears no-hitter territory, players know it and stay away from the pitcher in the dugout, afraid of jinxing things. And the White Sox weren’t immune to that baseball tradition on Sunday.

“It was getting quiet,” Gonzalez said. “I was just trying to do my thing. Just go out there and make pitches, let them make the plays and that’s how things went.”

The Tigers — who trailed big after the White Sox gave Gonzalez a 7-0 lead — finally broke through to start the seventh. Austin Romine reached on an infield single, Alex Avila singled through the right side of the infield, and Miguel Cabrera dumped an RBI base hit into right field.

Detroit added two more runs on three extra-base hits in the eighth, but Gonzalez still finished with a great line, yielding just three runs on six hits in 7.2 innings of work.

Gonzalez’s gem snapped a streak of rough outings that started, coincidentally enough, against this Tigers team, when he was crushed for seven runs on 14 hits in an April 30 loss in Detroit. Entering Sunday’s game, Gonzalez was a nasty 0-5 with a 6.99 ERA in his previous five starts. He hadn’t made it out of the sixth inning in any of his previous three starts.

“I started off really good. I was struggling for a couple outings, and all you can do is keep working hard and things are going to happen,” Gonzalez said. “I think if you work hard in between your starts you have a pretty good chance of getting back on track and that’s how I felt today.”

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That seventh-inning blip by the Tigers ended the day’s only drama, as the White Sox offense put the result of the game out of question earlier, tagging opposing starting pitcher Jordan Zimmermann for seven runs in his five innings of work.

Zimmermann entered the day struggling on the 2017 campaign, and that didn’t change Sunday. Willy Garcia tripled in Omar Narvaez for the game’s first run in the third and scored on the same play thanks to a throwing error. Two hitters later, Melky Cabrera hit a solo home run to make it 3-0.

Matt Davidson led off the bottom of the fourth with his 10th home run of the season, and Narvaez drove in Yolmer Sanchez to make it 5-0. Todd Frazier tacked on two more in the fifth with a two-run shot that also scored Jose Abreu.

“As an offense, we’re trying to give that (big cushion) every night. That’d be nice,” Davidson said. “And it really relaxes them. And you can see what happens when they’ve got a lead and you let them do their thing.”

The White Sox took three of four from the Tigers in this weekend series that featured a doubleheader split Saturday. It’s a positive start to this home stand — which continues with a three-game series against the Boston Red Sox — after going 3-7 on a recent 10-game road trip.

“I'm very happy with it, but again I'm not surprised by it, simply because I think they come out every single day to try to play good baseball and do what they need to help each other out and win ballgames,” manager Rick Renteria said. “It's just their character, the way they're put together. They keep battling.”

Jose Abreu relishing opportunity to help mentor Luis Robert, White Sox newest Cuban addition

Jose Abreu relishing opportunity to help mentor Luis Robert, White Sox newest Cuban addition

Call it the White Sox latest Cuban connection.

When news came out of the team pursuing 19-year-old Cuban outfielder Luis Robert, it was pretty easy to guess that Jose Abreu, the franchise’s previous big-time, free-agent signing from Cuba, would be involved.

But not only was Abreu involved in the White Sox courting of Robert, sending a personalized message as part of the team’s video pitch, he’s been a willing participant. And now that Robert is officially signed after Saturday’s much-hyped introduction, Abreu is ready to take on a mentorship role, much like he has with another one of the organization’s Cuban prospects, Yoan Moncada.

In the lead up to Saturday’s press conference, it was Abreu touring Robert around Guaranteed Rate Field, chatting with him in the dugout and taking pictures on the infield.

“I was very excited to have him here, and I’m very happy right now because he’s signing with the team,” Abreu said through a translator ahead of Sunday’s series finale with the visiting Detroit Tigers. “He’s a very good player. I just told him that he has to keep working hard and keep doing the things to get here as soon as he can. He’s a nice guy.

“I’m excited to have that opportunity (to be a mentor). That’s something that I like to do. I like to advise the guys and tell them what to do for their best like I am doing right now with Moncada. I’m just waiting for that opportunity to happen with (Robert).”

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While Abreu arrived on the South Side an older, more experienced player who was ready for the big leagues, Robert’s journey to the majors will be a much different, much longer one. Abreu recognizes that and talked about how tough the transition will be. He also has confidence Robert, who has received glowing scouting reports comparing him to perennial All Stars, can succeed.

“It’s not an easy thing to do to come here straight to play in the majors because this is a very high level and a tough one to play,” Abreu said. “I think the best for him is the decision that he’s making for him, to have some games in the minors and let him develop there. He’s had a long time without playing baseball. Baseball in Cuba is good, but it’s not as good as baseball here in the U.S. and you have to adjust. I think that process for him is going to be perfect in the minors.”

Saturday, Robert talked about the White Sox tradition of Cuban players, mentioning how it helped motivate him to sign with the team. Abreu has been one of the franchise’s most successful Cuban players, a list that includes the legendary Minnie Minoso as well as more recent players like Alexei Ramirez and Dayan Viciedo and Moncada in the minor leagues.

While that tradition might not be the entire or even main reason Robert is now a part of the organization, general manager Rick Hahn talked about how it’s created an environment that will help Robert develop. Banners featuring Minoso, Abreu, Ramirez and Moncada flanked the table where Robert signed his contract.

Abreu said it’s a tradition he’s very proud to be a part of.

“That made me feel happy and proud. Not just for this organization that I’m a part of, but also for my heritage because I know that this is a very good organization and they are trying to take care of the Cuban players,” Abreu said. “I also feel a huge respect for Minnie Minoso because he was the first one who opened this door here with the White Sox.”

Through his mentoring, Abreu could keep that tradition going into the future. Robert and Moncada are huge pieces of the White Sox rebuilding puzzle, and Abreu is helping put those pieces together for the White Sox.