It came as no surprise that White Sox manager Tony La Russa named right-hander Lucas Giolito as his Opening Day starter on Monday.
Giolito is coming off two strong seasons, one as an All-Star in 2019, and he has stepped forward as the leader of the Sox’ rotation.
Fans weren’t surprised, nor was the media. And perhaps least of all, Giolito knew it was coming. Probably since last October.
“I feel like I’ve earned this spot over the last couple of years,” Giolito said. “We’ll forget about . I’ve proven I’m one of the top starters in this league.”
La Russa likes the confidence. That he had two other choices to even consider with Opening Day chops says something about Giolito, who started the opener last season. Left-hander Dallas Keuchel with the Astros and righty Lance Lynn with the Rangers also have Opening Day experience, but Giolito, the incumbent, is a pitching centerpiece of the Sox’ rebuild. He figures to be around longer and will add to his collection of Opening Day starts if his career stays on its current path.
“All three starters could be Opening Day guys and have been,” La Russa said. “Gio has earned that spot based on his performance with our club. And it’s a nice mix with Dallas afterward and Lance in the third spot. But Lucas has been everything you look for. He’s a worker between starts, he’s a good teammate and he goes out there with an arsenal with several ways to get you out. His performance in the first game of the playoffs is everything you need to know about him. And Opening Day is a big game.”
The Sox open the season April 1 against the Angels in Anaheim, California. Keuchel is lined up to pitch the second game April 2, and Lynn is set to follow Keuchel on April 3, La Russa said.
Right-hander Dylan Cease, who made his first Cactus League start Monday against the Cubs, is the favorite for the No. 4 spot, with lefty Carlos Rodon and right-hander Reynaldo Lopez competing for the fifth spot.
“The [last] two spots are in competition,” La Russa said.
Giolito was 14-9 with a 3.41 ERA in 2019. Last season, he went 4-3 with a 3.48 ERA, pitched a no-hitter against the Pirates and took a perfect game into the seventh inning of the Sox’ first playoff game since 2008.
He was transformed from one of the worst starters in the majors in 2018, when he posted a 6.13 ERA and 90 walks in 173 innings, to an All-Star in 2019.
“I wonder sometimes if I didn’t get my [butt] kicked so bad in ’18, would I have really found the motivation to find who I really am out on the mound,” Giolito said. “It sounds weird to say, but I kind of needed that a little bit, and it’s helped propel me to where I am. The work never stops. I’m looking forward to taking the ball on April 1, giving it my best possible effort. Hopefully we come away with a win and start the season off right.”
This spring, Giolito has been sharp with one run allowed, 11 strikeouts and two walks over nine innings covering three starts. A focus is making his slider a plus pitch to complement his riding four-seam fastball and changeup. He threw a live batting practice Monday and will make his next start Wednesday against the Dodgers. Two more starts will follow as tuneups for April 1.
“Being the Opening Day starter is a definite honor, but being the Opening Day starter of a team that has a chance at contending for a World Series, it just makes it more important, more fun, but for me the focus is very much — you know how I am — one at a time,” Giolito said.
“Obviously we know what our goals are, big-picture-wise. But for me, it’s very singular. I’ve got that one start coming up, got a few more here in spring to prepare for it and then keep going from there.”