Johnny Cueto gives another 8 strong innings, but White Sox fall in road-trip opener

Cueto faced the Rangers as the White Sox opened an important road trip in Texas.

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Johnny Cueto pitched eight innings of one-run ball.

Chicago White Sox starting pitcher Johnny Cueto spins out of the path of a grounder by Texas Rangers’ Corey Seager during the seventh inning Thursday, Aug. 4, 2022, in Arlington, Texas. Seager was out at first on the play. (AP)

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ARLINGTON, Texas — Pitching coach Ethan Katz knows Johnny Cueto as well as anyone. But even Katz, who was certain the veteran right-hander would be an asset to the White Sox’ rotation when general manager Rick Hahn pursued him in the spring, didn’t expect to see what Cueto has done after he was signed to a minor-league contract April 5.

“I had high expectations,” Katz said. “But he’s exceeding everyone’s expectations.”

What has become expected of Cueto is what he gave the Sox on Thursday night — another strong start of eight innings, allowing three runs and fielding his position with aplomb, in a 3-2 loss to the Rangers. Cueto has pitched six innings or more in 13 of 14 starts this season.

What’s more, Cueto, 36, is providing quality starts to the tune of a 2.91 ERA, and there are no signs of regression. He pitched six, eight, six, seven and seven innings in his five starts in July, with a 2.12 ERA.

“His command is really good; he can throw all his pitches whenever he wants to,” Katz said of the two-time All-Star. “The one thing I knew when we had the chance to get him was that he was going to face guys who hadn’t seen him because he has been in the [National League] West for so long.

“That’s to our advantage.”

If only the Sox, who were held to five hits in a failed attempt to get within a game of the Twins, had supported Cueto against left-hander Cole Ragans, who allowed one unearned run in five innings in his major-league debut. Ragans walked four, and the Sox put the leadoff man on in the second inning through the sixth inning but scored once.

“Unfortunately, the offense couldn’t support me, but that’s part of the game, too,” Cueto said. “I don’t blame them. But I think I pitched a good game.”

“Our offense just got shut down,” said manager Tony La Russa, who called Cueto’s performance “magnificent.”

Cueto entered the seventh locked in a 1-1 game, but Meibrys Viloria’s pinch single, one of four singles in the inning, broke the tie. Marcus Semien’s sacrifice fly to right fielder Andrew Vaughn, on which Vaughn and center fielder AJ Pollock got tangled up preventing a play at the plate, made it 3-1.

“We would have had a better shot at home if I didn’t clip him there,” Pollock said. “It is what it is.”

Yoan Moncada’s triple that was mishandled by right fielder Adolis Garcia scored Jose Abreu in the eighth inning, cutting the lead to 3-2. Cueto finished with a perfect eighth through the heart of the Rangers’ lineup.

“I try to change the batter’s plan in the late innings,” Cueto said. “Then I try to throw more fastballs, be more aggressive, put more spin on my pitches. That’s just a way for me to play with the batters.”

Katz — a former assistant pitching coach with the Giants, for whom Cueto toiled in six of his 15 big-league seasons — got to know Cueto well and had a voice in his acquisition by the Sox.

At a time when power pitchers throw every pitch with seemingly every ounce of strength they can muster, Cueto gets hitters out with movement, craftiness and recognition.

“He has a unique ability — some have it and some don’t — to read hitters,” Katz said. “He can see where the at-bat is going and pivot off something and go a different route. He’s a tough one to get on the same page with, but when he’s rolling and the catcher is working with him well, it can be really quick.”

Cueto will be a free agent again after the season and likely will encounter a livelier market than he did last winter, even at his age.

“What he’s doing right now, he can keep doing this a long time,” Katz said.

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