White Sox’ Dylan Cease pleased with progress: ‘I’m hard on myself, but the strides I’ve made are big’

The 25-year-old right-hander ranks third in the AL with 11.57 strikeouts per nine innings.

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White Sox pitcher Dylan Cease throws against the Twins on July 21, 2021, in Chicago. (AP)

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KANSAS CITY, Mo. — Dylan Cease has premium stuff, and there’s no comparison to last season in how he’s commanding it, he said.

“I’m hard on myself,” said Cease, who will pitch the second game of the White Sox’ series against the Royals on Tuesday. “But the strides I’ve made are really big.”

Cease wasn’t trusted to start Game 3 of the wild-card series against the Athletics last season, and he understood why. The Cease of 2021 would have been, but now he faces the possibility of being squeezed out of a postseason rotation because of the Sox’ depth.

Teams don’t need five starters in October, so one of the Sox’ quintet of Lance Lynn, Carlos Rodon, Lucas Giolito, Dallas Keuchel and Cease will pitch in relief in the playoffs, assuming the Sox get there as expected, and all are healthy. Lynn, Rodon and Giolito seem set as starters, and it’s hard to envision Keuchel’s stuff playing as a reliever. His experience won’t be overlooked, either.

Asked about the possibility of pitching in relief, Cease said he’s simply focused on start to start, on what happened in his last one and what he needs to work on.

“I don’t know,” Cease said. “It’s above my pay grade. I just throw it and throw it when they tell me to. Whenever that comes, I’m going to do what I have to do.”

With a four-seam fastball averaging 97 mph in July, a sharp slider and curve and a changeup that Frank Thomas raves about, Cease’s stuff is outstanding, and he knows it.

“Yeah. I do,” he said. “I know I’ve always had the raw ability. It’s figuring out how to do it and do it consistently at the major league level. But, yeah, I know how good my stuff is. If I’m throwing it in the zone and locating it it’s a very powerful feeling. But if you’re not using it well, then it’s pointless to have stuff like that.”

Cease (4.21 ERA) has averaged 11.6 strikeouts and 3.8 walks per nine innings, compared to 6.8 strikeouts and 5.2 walks last season. The strikeout ratio ranks third among American League pitchers. His 132 strikeouts rank fifth.

“I’m throwing my high-quality offspeed [pitches] in the strike zone, where last year I was almost lucky to drop a curveball in for a strike,” he said. “Now I feel like I’m just driving offspeed in there and utilizing my fastball better. My fastball didn’t have ride. It’s a big difference.”

Burger back to Charlotte

Former first-round pick Jake Burger -returned to Triple-A Charlotte to make room for Eloy Jimenez. Burger batted .263 with a homer, triple, three doubles and three RBI in 15 games.

“He’s more than a big-league prospect,” manager Tony La Russa said. “He’s ready to help contribute, but the more experience he gets, the more he’ll contribute. His full potential needs more at-bats and more playing at third base and everything else in Triple A.”

This and that

Outfielder Adam Engel was unavailable Saturday and Sunday because of sore shoulders from “hitting the ground a couple times,” La Russa said, and wasn’t immediately written into the lineup Monday. He’ll probably be off Tuesday.

• The Sox have signed all 20 of their draft picks.

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