ST. PETERSBURG, Fla. — When you’re the best starting pitcher in a rotation like Reynaldo Lopez was in 2018, the last thing that crosses your mind is ever seeing the inside of a minor-league bus or hotel again.
But that’s what happened to the White Sox right-hander, who struggled the following year and couldn’t get untracked during the COVID-shortened mess of last season.
Lopez found himself pitching for Triple-A Charlotte to open this season. He was about to find out what he really was made of.
“When I look back at what happened, I see it was a test,” Lopez said through translator Billy Russo. “Sometimes you have to go through challenges. It’s the only way you can grow up. You can come out of it stronger and better, and while it wasn’t what I wanted, maybe it was what I needed.”
Since returning from Charlotte on July 19, Lopez has been better than ever, making eight relief appearances and three starts. His fourth start, filling in for the injured Carlos Rodon, is Sunday in the rubber match of a three-game series against the Rays. He’ll bring a 1.08 ERA into it after stringing together eight scoreless innings in his last two starts, against the Twins and Athletics.
And then it’ll be back to the bullpen to fill a variety of needs, with Rodon expected to start again as soon as Thursday in Toronto.
Lopez “has been a huge contributor in the second half,” pitching coach Ethan Katz said. Lopez will be available for long, multi-inning and back-end relief. If a spot start is needed, the Sox know who to hand the ball to.
“My mindset is find ways to help the team in any capacity,” Lopez said.
After Rodon handily beat him out for the fifth starter’s spot in spring training, Lopez went to Charlotte and posted a hefty 7.62 ERA in 10 starts. But something clicked between there and Chicago when he was called up after the All-Star break.
“The tempo in his delivery, he’s going after guys,” Katz said. “The stuff is up right now, the slider is electric.”
Lopez said he hasn’t tweaked much, aside from altering the grip on his slider a tad. His velocity is around 97 mph, and his confidence is as high as it has ever been.
It also didn’t hurt that Lopez had surgery in May to fix both corneas, correcting blurred vision.
“When you don’t see the catcher’s signs clearly, you can have some doubts,” he said. “It did create some hesitation and doubt in my mind.”
What matters more is his stuff and execution. Lopez’s strikeout rate of 9.4% and walk rate of 2.5% are the highest and lowest of his career, albeit through only 25 innings.
On days when Dallas Keuchel allows six runs and nine hits in five innings, as he did in an 8-4 loss Saturday, or when an All-Star like Rodon needs a break, Lopez’s recent performances provide a measure of comfort.
It’s nice for Katz knowing he’s there.
A couple of months ago, some Sox fans didn’t know where he was.
“It was difficult, I won’t lie,” Lopez said. “In 2018, I was the [team’s] best starter [with a 3.91 ERA in 32 starts]. And 2019 was my first bad year. I never experienced that kind of trouble and outcomes over such a long period. It frustrated me, and I wasn’t able to get out of it.”
It seems that he is on his way to being out of it. And when he goes to the bullpen, it’s all good in his view.
“That’s a decision the team has to make, and to me it doesn’t matter,” Lopez said. “Carlos will start when he gets here, and the team will need me in the bullpen or to start a game. Either way, I’ll be prepared to do whatever they ask.”