No one on the White Sox pitching staff has a better arm than Reynaldo Lopez.
No one has struggled more staying locked in mentally.
If Lopez figures out how to keep his head in the game, he could carve a niche in the Sox starting rotation for years to come.
If he doesn’t, the Sox’ starting pitching train could pass him by. It won’t wait forever.
“There’s a certain amount of time allowed for guys to work through things,” manager Rick Renteria said, “but at any given time things can change. We’ve grown a lot this year and we’re not going to do this in perpetuity. The goal is to go out and compete and win games.”
Lopez achieved that goal in his final start of the season Saturday, holding the Tigers to one run on five hits and one walk in eight-plus innings in a 7-1 victory in Game 1 of a doubleheader at Guaranteed Rate Field. Lopez struck out nine batters, the only run against him a homer by Miguel Cabrera in the first inning.
“The key for me today throughout the whole outing was my focus,” Lopez said. “Even though Miggy hit that homer, I turned the page, I didn’t think about that. I stuck with my plan and was able to execute all my pitches and be able to have a good outing.”
General manager Rick Hahn knows how much the Sox’ objective to pivot from rebuilders to winners next season and beyond hinges on the starting rotation. So does pitching coach Don Cooper, who had a conversation with the 25-year-old Lopez this week that went something like this: This is what we want, this is what we need and this is what we require from you.
“You’re going to see not only the improvement in terms of the mechanical adjustments that we made and you’ve seen over the course of the second half, but also from the approach,” Hahn said. “It’s been a positive year for him, even if the results haven’t been what anyone, including him, were looking for.”
Lopez’ starts have run the gamut, as good as an 11-strikeout, one-hit shutout performance against the Indians in Cleveland Sept. 5 and as frustrating as his previous start against the Tigers in Detroit when Renteria, surgically repaired shoulder in a sling and all, paid a face-to-face mound visit to “make sure he was aware he was actually pitching.”
“Love the way that Ricky handled that,” Hahn said. “Lopey’s going to be better for it.”
Lopez was locked in against the lowly Tigers, sending them to their 113th defeat. He finished with a 10-15 record and 5.38 ERA after going 7-10 with a 3.91 ERA in his first full season as a Sox last year.
“This season was kind of rough but it was good to finish like this,” Lopez said through a translator.
“I think he just responded to himself,” Renteria said. “I think he looked within. Really came out right out of the gate pumping strikes. You saw the velocity up right away [he touched 98.6 mph] as well.
“That’s the kind of start he can have on a consistent basis. We’re very optimistic that that’s kind of the guy we want to see and I think the guy he is.”
The Sox widened Lopez’ 4-1 lead when shortstop Danny Mendick, on his 26th birthday, hit a two-run homer in the sixth, and Eloy Jimenez homered off the left-field foul pole in the seventh, both against righty reliever Edwin Jackson.
Lopez threw 105 pitches and was relieved in the ninth by Kelvin Herrera after allowing a leadoff single to Victor Reyes in the ninth. Sox fans gave him a supportive standing ovation, and he tipped his cap before ducking into the dugout.
“I was able to make adjustments throughout the season with my mechanics, and I was able to stay healthy, and now it’s more about my mind,” Lopez said. “You know, be mentally ready for every situation and mentally strong.”