Cease shakes off struggles, builds case for Opening Day nod

March 20th, 2023

PEORIA, Ariz. -- There has been no official announcement regarding the White Sox Opening Day starter on March 30 in Houston.

But certainly looked the part of a No. 1 during his outing Sunday afternoon in a 6-2 victory over the Mariners at Peoria Stadium. The right-hander struck out six over four-plus innings and 68 pitches, allowing one run on three hits and one walk. 

“Very encouraging,” Cease said. “We’ve come a long way since Kansas City.”

If Cease wanted to be more accurate with the Kansas City reference, he would have said “that Kansas City game in Surprise.” This forgettable start came on March 8 when Cease allowed 11 runs over two-thirds of an inning on seven hits and four walks without a strikeout. The only two outs recorded were long fly balls.

Then again, that start didn’t matter aside from Cease ramping up for the regular season. His rough night helped get to the high point hit against the Mariners.

“It’s one of those things where it’s not that funny in the moment,” Cease said. “But I found that any time that you have something like that happen and you come out and have success, it just further develops confidence. 

“I can come back from something like that. It was obviously not ideal, but I’m at a good spot now, so we can laugh about it.”

Sunday’s start wasn’t without early struggles in a 30-pitch first. Cease went six pitches deep against AJ Pollock, his 2022 teammate, before Pollock singled to open the frame and then walked Teoscar Hernández in a six-pitch plate appearance.

Cease worked out of the jam with just one run allowed, retiring Brian O’Keefe on a fly ball to right. Over his next three innings, Cease threw a combined 38 pitches -- 13, 15 and 10, in that order. From the last out in the second through the first out in the fourth, Cease fanned five straight.

“Yeah, I was bouncing stuff. Kind of got my feel with my body and where to aim everything, and it was just automatic after that,” Cease said. “Any time I’m getting ahead like I was after that first inning with my offspeed, it just makes my life so much easier. When I got them ahead, they can't really sit on something. They have to expand.

“Getting it in the zone and getting [an] advantage, it counts for me. Didn’t really trust it well enough in the first, and then once I got in a rhythm, it was good to go. I think that’s what spring is for, just fine-tuning everything.”

Cease’s next start should come Friday against the A’s in Mesa, which would line him up for Opening Day at Minute Maid Park with an extra fifth day of rest. It appears Lance Lynn, Lucas Giolito, Mike Clevinger and Michael Kopech will follow Cease in that order, with Kopech getting the home opener on April 3 against the Giants. But again, nothing has been set in stone by manager Pedro Grifol.

“I'm not really thinking that far ahead, but if we get there, when we get there, if we get there, I would be ready for sure,” Cease said. “You can't really replicate that kind of adrenaline. It's always fun to see your body naturally take things to the next level. I've got more experience now to be able to control it a little bit better."

To further boost his case, Cease finished second in the 2022 American League Cy Young voting. So, he was the Opening Day White Sox favorite before players even reported to Arizona.

Most importantly, Cease feels good and is building toward facing the defending World Series champions. He topped out at 96 mph according to the Peoria radar gun and would like to throw 99 before departing spring camp, but doesn’t need to see it. 

“As I get more high-intensity reps, the velo will probably naturally climb. But if I have to pitch at 95 mph, then I'll pitch at 95. If I have to pitch at 98, I'll pitch at 98,” Cease said. “The big thing in spring is locking in the strike zone, and then as you get a little sharper, now it's like, ‘All right, where do I start my slider to get it to be a strike, [or a] ball if you don't want them to hit [it].’

“Little things like that. First inning, I didn't have any feel for it. Then by the end of the game, I was throwing it for a strike, and then throwing it out of the zone when I wanted.”