SCOTTSDALE, Ariz. – Talk about a perfect dress rehearsal.
As final tuneups go, right-hander Dylan Cease could not have been more dominant Tuesday.
His confidence could not be any higher.
As a springboard for himself and for a team with World Series aspirations that might have to lean on its pitching staff just a bit harder knowing slugger Eloy Jimenez will be absent for most of the season, Cease struck out 11 Rockies and walked none in 5 1/3 innings innings of a 2-1 loss. The outing, which lowered Cease’s spring ERA to 1.06 over four outings, demonstrated his high-end stuff and strides taken while working with new pitching coach Ethan Katz during the offseason and this spring.
“That’s as much as I can ask for right there,” said Cease, who gave up an opposite field solo homer to CJ Cron but little else. “I couldn’t be more happy to end on a high note like that. I’m definitely ready to go.”
Forget that the Sox (12-12-5), who lost just two of their last 10 Cactus League games, the outcomes of which don’t mean much. Were it just one good, random spring day at the park for the Sox’ No. 4 starter, optimism would be tempered, but Cease has been very good all spring, recording 22 strikeouts and walking seven over 17 innings.
His velocity again reached the upper 90s, and he threw all of his pitches for strikes. He threw 86 pitches, 58 strikes.
“The transformation has been really remarkable,” he said.
Cease said something clicked in his second live batting practice early in spring and in the fifth inning of his previous outing.
And things have been clicking for left-hander Carlos Rodon, the No. 5 starter who said he experienced the bast fastball command of his career this spring.
Over 13 2/3 innings in four outings, Rodon had a 1.32 ERA with 16 strikeouts and one walk.
Not bad for the back end of a rotation that pitched to a 2.21 ERA with 97 strikeouts over 81 2/3 innings as a unit in Cactus League games.
“Having us at the back, that gives us a really strong chance to win a lot of games,” Cease said. “Carlos has looked really nasty thins spring. I think we’re ready to go.
“We’re definitely not lacking any confidence right now. I don’t know what else I can say about the other four guys, other than they’re nasty.”
Lucas Giolito, the Opening Day starter Thursday, posted a 1.17 ERA with 30 strikeouts in six starts covering 23 innings. No. 2 and No. 3 starters Lance Lynn look like themselves.
With Jimenez gone, the Sox might have to out-pitch more teams than they figured and appear equipped to do that.
“It probably means we might be playing a few more close games than we want,” general manager Rick Hahn said. “But from a run-prevention standpoint, the pitching staff and the defense seem to be in a real good spot as we enter the season. Offensively, obviously it’s a blow not having Eloy around.
“You talk about teams that are built to out-slug you, or they’re built to beat you 2-1. We hope to have the ability to do it either way over the course of the season: some days, hopefully put up seven to 10 runs, and some days, beat you 1-0 with this pitching staff.”
Cease, Katz said, “feels like he knows where the ball’s going every single time it leaves his hand, where in the past it hasn’t really been that way.”
As Opening Day approaches, there are good vibes from the entire staff, including a bullpen which some view as the best in the AL.
“We’re going into the season in a good spot,” Katz said. “The starters have had a very nice spring training, the relievers have all got their work, they’ve all bounced back great. So I feel like we’re in a really good spot from top to bottom, and now it’s go time.”