But nobody seemed to be worried about the six innings needed to achieve such a goal when talking postgame about the White Sox right-hander’s excellence.
“Yes, he was outstanding,” White Sox manager Tony La Russa said before a question could be asked about Cease. “Everything is sharper. It’s hard to imagine. He’s just making better pitches with everything.”
“He was outstanding,” Rays manager Kevin Cash said of Cease. “He was really tough. He had both breaking balls going, even threw a couple changeups third time through the lineup. He’s got good stuff. You understand from the side why he strikes so many people out. … He just threw a good ballgame for them.”
Cease admitted to being a little slider/fastball heavy during his opening victory over Detroit last Saturday in a game where he wasn’t completely satisfied with his performance despite fanning eight over five innings of two-hit baseball. Against the Rays, Cease threw 35 four-seam fastballs against 35 sliders, per Statcast, but also mixed in 15 curves and even six changeups among his 91 pitches.
Brandon Lowe’s leadoff at-bat against Cease began with a 75.9 mph curve for a strike, per Statcast, and finished with a 97.6 mph four-seamer for the strikeout. Cease fanned eight, walked two and allowed one run on three hits before being replaced by Aaron Bummer after striking out Randy Arozarena for the second out in the sixth.
This effort brought about a noticeably better self-evaluation from a pitcher anointed by many to be the American League Cy Young winner in 2022 preseason picks.
“I felt great about this one,” Cease said. “I thought my command and feel was a lot better. 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.”
“He came into Spring Training, and I think maybe the first batting practice he threw, he wasn’t that good,” La Russa said. “But after that, he’s a quick study with a lot of talent. That’s the best way to describe it.”
With the shortened Spring Training and the challenge of the Rays’ lineup, La Russa never thought of pushing Cease beyond his final workload. In fact, he went into the sixth figuring how long Cease would stay on the mound for that particular inning.
There were no complaints from Cease concerning the timing of his removal.
“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. It’s just one of those things you just kind of got to deal with it.”
“It was err on the side of caution,” La Russa said. “You don’t push him. This is his second start of the season. You want him to be able to stay healthy, strong right through.”
Jake Burger, who is getting a chance to play regularly with third baseman Yoán Moncada on the injured list due to a strained right oblique, homered in the third and singled home Leury García in the fifth. García’s double in that frame marks his lone hit in 20 at-bats this season.
The current scenario for Cease is similar to Burger in that he’s getting a chance at the top of the rotation with Lucas Giolito and Lance Lynn on the IL. But when you look deeper into Cease’s recent numbers, it’s apparent the White Sox really have three aces.
In his last five regular season starts dating back to Sept. 17, 2021, Cease is 4-0 with a 1.08 ERA, 40 strikeouts in 25 innings and a .189 opponents average. He has struck out at least eight in six of his last eight starts and is 9-3 with a 3.11 ERA at home since 2020.
So, Cease just needs to be himself in this strange start to the season.
“I kind of always have that temptation, but it’s not something I’m consciously thinking of,” Cease said of doing more without Giolito and Lynn. “I’m just trying to focus on what I have to do to execute.”