A year after an injury that led to a defining run, Lucas Giolito is frustrated — but still working

The White Sox’ ace is heaving balls at chain link in a park and feeding his jones for competition by participating in an online “MLB The Show 20” charity tournament. Still, he says, “It’s so hard not to be playing baseball.”

SHARE A year after an injury that led to a defining run, Lucas Giolito is frustrated — but still working
Oakland Athletics v Chicago White Sox

Giolito won eight straight starts last May and June.

Photo by Nuccio DiNuzzo/Getty Images

On April 18, 2019, the baseball world woke up talking about a bat flip. Technically, the display by White Sox shortstop Tim Anderson the previous day had been, after a screaming home run to left at Guaranteed Rate Field, much more of a bat throw. Anderson was hit by a pitch from Royals starter Brad Keller in his next at-bat. Benches cleared. Expletives were hurled. Halfhearted shoves were, well, shoved. Suspensions would come for Anderson and Keller, but none of the above has a single thing to do with this story.

That same morning, Sox right-hander Lucas Giolito woke up with a sore left hamstring. He had started that game for the Sox and exited it in the third inning after suffering a mild strain that would keep him out of action for two scheduled turns on the bump.

“It wasn’t worrisome in the long term,” Giolito, 25, recalled in a phone interview from his home in Davis, California. “But it was a huge annoyance. I wanted to be in the rotation.”

The experience heightened Giolito’s awareness of what he had been doing with his plant leg when pitching. In his return May 2 with an up-and-down five innings — and a no-decision — against the Red Sox, he was softer on the left leg, bending his knee a bit more in a smoother delivery that would become a permanent part of his mechanics.

It was perhaps the final piece of his 2019 puzzle. Giolito had worked tirelessly to improve on a 2018 season in which, in 32 starts, he had the highest WHIP (1.48) in baseball and the most walks (90) and earned runs allowed (118) in the American League. He had overhauled his mechanics and dived into neurofeedback training to combat the anxiety he had felt on the mound.

He was ready to flip the script on his young big-league career, and that’s exactly what happened. Giolito busted through last season with a 14-9 record, a 3.41 ERA and a 1.06 WHIP in 29 starts. His walks plummeted to 57, and his strikeouts exploded from 125 the season before to 228. He made his first All-Star team and finished sixth in AL Cy Young Award voting.

It all started after that hammy strain. The first start was followed by eight more — all victories for Giolito — during which he threw 57⅓ innings, striking out 65 and walking only 14, with a sparkling 0.94 ERA. He entered the stretch 2-1 with a 5.30 ERA and exited it 10-1 with a 2.22 ERA. For a while there, he was the talk of the AL.

GIOLITO HAD EVERYTHING WORKINGin a complete-game shutout of the Astros on May 23 in Houston. Well, “everything” might be a bit of an overstatement. His fastball and changeup were on point, as they would be throughout the nine-game winning streak. He mixed in a few successful curveballs, too, an all-too-rare occurrence. One of the curves retired Josh Reddick swinging in the sixth inning, a perfect pitch that came out of Giolito’s hand on the same plane as his fastball. The pitch didn’t have a big hump but dived straight down, nasty and unhittable.

Even better in that game was Giolito’s slider, another pitch he used on a limited basis last season because he couldn’t control it consistently. Over pancakes at home in Davis, the 2020 season on hold, Giolito watched as the Sox streamed his 107-pitch gem on YouTube. It was his first time seeing the game broadcast-style.

“Yes! That’s the slider!” he thought more than once.

The way it came out of his hand and the shape it took looked better than it had in any other game last season. Giolito was able to remember the feel he had for his slider that day, something he had lost in ensuing starts when he tried — too hard, he realizes now — to throw it.

“I want to put guys away with the curve and fool guys with sliders,” he said. “What sucks is that I was working on those things [this] spring, and it was going really well. I was feeling like, ‘I’m going to be better than I was last year.’ That’s annoying.”

The work hasn’t stopped completely. Giolito has a large net in his backyard that he pitches into, though the space he has to work with — only about 65 feet — limits what else he can do. To simulate long toss, he walks with his 2½-year-old rescue mutt to a park two blocks from home, ties Louie (“my best buddy”) to a tree, positions himself about 15 feet from the chain-link shell behind home plate of a softball field, crow-hops and fires into the back side of the shell.

One would think a 6-6 All-Star doing this in plain view at a park in a residential neighborhood would be a big draw — or at least create a curious ruckus.

“People just walk by,” he said. “They’re walking dogs, kids are skateboarding by, scootering by. Every once in a while, a kid will seem pretty curious. But I don’t think anybody knows who I am.”

WALKING THE STREETSnear his and wife Ariana’s residence in downtown Chicago, Giolito got recognized a bit more often as his breakout 2019 season went on. Outside of that? Nah.

“I don’t think it’s quite there on a national level,” he said. “The White Sox haven’t won for a very long time. Obviously, Chicago is a large market, but it’s still a Cubs town.

“When they put out top-pitchers lists, things like that, on social media, a lot of times I’m not there. That’s OK. It is what it is. I had one good year. I feel like last year was just the tip of the iceberg, scratching the surface. I want to be better. That’s why it sucks that we’re not playing.”

These days, Giolito is feeding his jones for competition by participating in an online “MLB The Show 20” charity tournament that features one player from each of the 30 major-league teams. For each player, it’s a 29-game round robin — one three-inning game against each of the other participants — before a postseason that will culminate in a “World Series” on May 2 that no doubt will, ahem, captivate the masses.

Hey, that’s what’s happening.

A day before his first four games (he would beat the Marlins’ Ryne Stanek and the Blue Jays’ Bo Bichette and lose to the Braves’ Luke Jackson and the Mets’ Jeff McNeil), Giolito was looking forward to having some fun with it. In particular, he was happy for the chance to interact with fans. Part of his prep for the tournament was a marathon session — four hours — playing “The Show” while livestreaming on his personal Twitch channel.

“At one point, I had, like, 200 people watching,” he said. “That’s not a huge number, but you’ve got to grow your channel. It’s good practice — talking, reading, trying to game. You’re multitasking, but you can’t just sit there and be boring. Nobody wants to watch that.’’

Practice for what? Maybe a broadcasting career down the line. Giolito — who would be superb at it — has an “um” and “you know” habit he would like to break.

It certainly isn’t practice for pitching in 2020. A year ago at this time, he was shut down for two starts. This time, it’s painfully longer.

He hopes it won’t be too much longer.

“Man, I hope so,” he said. “It’s so hard not to be playing baseball.”

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