Dylan Cease admitted Monday he sometimes thinks about his chances of winning the American League Cy Young Award during his breakout season.
Chalk it up to the joy of youth?
“Old guys think about it too,” Justin Verlander said with a laugh. “It’s very natural.”
Cease, the 26-year-old Chicago White Sox ace, faces Verlander, the 39-year-old Cy Young favorite, on Tuesday night at Guaranteed Rate Field in the second game of a key series between the Sox and Houston Astros.
Monday’s 4-2, come-from-behind Sox victory was an appetizer for the main course, and both starters seemed primed for the showdown.
“Two guys having good years, and it’ll be fun,” Verlander said. “I don’t think you get a lot of moments where you get two guys having great years like this matchup. Things have to align, so it’s very exciting.”
The game has changed so much over the years, with starters getting lifted even after six or seven no-hit innings and front-office executives game-planning the pitching moves with the manager hours before the first pitch.
Whether it’s better or worse for the game is in the eye of the beholder. To some of us dinosaurs, turning the game over to anonymous relievers is never as fun as watching two dominant pitchers trying to outduel each other for nine innings, even if their stuff isn’t quite as good as it was the first time through the order.
But that’s irrelevant now. Baseball never will go back to the days when a starter throwing well wouldn’t give up the ball unless it was pried out of his hand. Analytics have turned managers into drones. “Five and dive” has been replaced with “five and survive.”
All we can do is appreciate the rare occasions when two dominant starters go head-to-head in a regular-season game — and hope the managers understand this is entertainment. Many fans want to see which pitcher comes out on top, not which one gives his team a chance to win with 85 pitches.
Tony La Russa and Dusty Baker are the kind of old-school managers one might think would give their starters a little more leeway in a marquee matchup such as Verlander-Cease. We’ll see.
They’re also new-school thinkers when it comes to ensuring their aces are still healthy and durable come October, so don’t expect a return to the days when pitch counts were thrown out the window.
Still, Baker knows it’s something the game needs.
“I was thinking about it today,” he said. “This is like when I was a kid — (Sandy) Koufax and Juan Marichal, or Don Drysdale and Gaylord Perry, Ferguson Jenkins and Bob Gibson. These are classic, classic (matchups). I remember when Don Sutton on our team (the Los Angeles Dodgers) was facing Nolan Ryan.
“I’m going to have to really be careful and make sure I don’t spectate and manage. Because if I was at home, I’d get me a bowl of popcorn and some beer and the only time I’d leave would be if there was a commercial or it was between innings because that’s a classic (matchup).”
Baker said the reason there aren’t more classic matchups is there were fewer teams back in the day, and four-man rotations made it likelier that two No. 1s might go head-to-head.
While that’s true, there’s also a lack of star power when it comes to starting pitchers. There are many well-paid starters but few must-see pitchers like Verlander, Max Scherzer and Clayton Kershaw.
Cease may be on his way — as evidenced by his record streak of 14 consecutive starts allowing one or no earned runs — but he’ll have to prove himself for a few more years to reach that status.
Can he imagine himself pitching at Verlander’s age?
“I haven’t even thought about it,” he said. “It’s hard to fathom, but I guess he and Scherzer are showing that if you take care of yourself, there’s no reason why your (velocity) or anything has to dip. Guys like that are making it easier to picture for sure.”
Cease revealed himself Monday to be the Sox’s poet laureate. He unveiled a poem he wrote about his slider called “O Slider Slide” and had the team distribute T-shirts with the verses on the back. A sampling:
“O slider slide o’ slider slide.
“In the strike zone indeed a win is implied.”
Well, Dylan Thomas had to start somewhere, and he probably couldn’t even throw a slider. You have to give Cease credit for putting himself out there.
Matchup aside, this is a huge series for the Sox, who were taken apart by these same Astros in October in the AL Division Series and have yet to recover.
Baker pointed to the Sox injuries, saying, “It’s not the uniform, it’s the person in the uniform.”
“If I’m playing my first team against your second team, over the long run I’m going to win most of the time and you’re going to lose most of the time,” he said.
The Sox greeted the Astros by playing “Bang the Drum All Day” during the introduction of the Houston lineup, a shot at their sign-stealing past. The Astros responded by hitting Sox starter Johnny Cueto hard in a two-run first inning, aided by a Josh Harrison error.
Cueto settled down and didn’t give up another run through the eighth, allowing the Sox to rally with four runs in the bottom of the eighth.
Maybe the scoreboard guys should’ve played “Golden Slumbers” for the Sox, who have been asleep at the wheel much of the season. The Astros, meanwhile, haven’t had any problems getting up for games, even with a sizable lead in the AL West.
“We expect guys to be their best version of themselves, and we all hold each other accountable,” Verlander said.
Baker said not to count the Sox out.
“They’re in a good division to be where they are,” he said. “I remember when Tony La Russa won 83 games and won the World Series (with the 2006 St. Louis Cardinals).”
So does La Russa.
“I know he does,” Baker said. “You just want to get in the dance. Our job is to stop them from getting in the dance.”