Johnny Cueto volunteered to pitch Sunday when the Chicago White Sox needed help after starter Michael Kopech exited in the first inning with right knee discomfort.
Cueto entered in the third against the Texas Rangers and tossed five innings in the second relief appearance of his 15-season career.
He was back in his usual starter’s role Saturday against the Houston Astros and was in complete control against one of the best lineups in baseball.
Cueto allowed two hits, struck out five and walked two in seven innings, pitching the Sox to a 7-0 victory against the Astros in front of 36,747 at Minute Maid Park.
“I just tried to keep the ball low in the zone because I know that they can hit,” Cueto said through an interpreter. “I was good with executing.”
A few hours after the Astros scored 10 runs in one inning during Friday’s 13-3 victory, Cueto kept them off-balance to earn his first win with the Sox.
“(Friday) night was a bad game for us,” Cueto said. “But I always say you need to keep your head up. Keep your head up and be optimistic and come back the next day and try to do your job.”
Cueto (1-3) did just that.
The only hits he surrendered were a Jose Altuve single to center leading off the first and an Alex Bregman infield single leading off the seventh. Both of those runners were erased on double plays.
Cueto helped the Sox to their first win at Minute Maid Park since May 23, 2019, snapping a streak of seven straight losses — including two in the 2021 postseason.
“That’s pitching at its finest,” Sox manager Tony La Russa said.
Cueto hadn’t received much run support since joining the Sox. That changed Saturday against Justin Verlander.
The entirely right-handed-hitting starting lineup had success, often taking the ball the other way.
“We know you are going to have to stay on the ball because he’s a Hall of Famer to be, so I thought it was a very intelligent approach,” La Russa said.
Danny Mendick and Andrew Vaughn singled to right, loading the bases with one out in the third. Luis Robert brought two home with a single to right for the game’s first runs.
José Abreu drove in two with a double to left, extending the lead to 4-0.
The hot hitting continued in the fourth. Josh Harrison singled to right and scored when Vaughn’s hard-hit grounder went through the legs of second baseman Altuve. Robert had a two-run double down the left-field line, stretching the lead to 7-0.
Robert had three hits and four RBIs. Vaughn had three hits and scored twice.
“My approach was the same as always,” Robert said through an interpreter. “I just tried to make good contact and put the ball in play.”
Verlander exited after Robert’s hit in the fourth. He allowed seven runs, four earned, on nine hits with three strikeouts in 3⅔ innings. His ERA went from 1.94 to 2.30.
“After that support, I just said ‘OK, I just need to keep the game as it is right now, I need to keep my focus,’ ” Cueto said. “Because sometimes you can lose it. And I was able to do that.”
Cueto’s ERA went from 3.53 to 2.95. He has pitched at least six innings in each of his six starts.
“With his contribution to what we are doing, that’s how he has pitched his whole career,” La Russa said. “He has given us a tremendous lift.”
The Sox had been held to three runs or fewer in four of Cueto’s first five starts. The one time they surpassed the mark was in his Sox debut May 16 in Kansas City, Mo., where Robert hit a two-run homer in the 10th for a 5-3 victory.
“It’s nothing personal, Johnny,” La Russa said. “But that’s a makeup (Saturday). Against a guy like Verlander, a lot of really good at-bats. Stringing hits together, hitting down in the count. It was a lot of major-league hitting (Saturday).”
And big-time pitching from Cueto, who said he didn’t feel any linger effects from the relief appearance.
“I just like to work,” Cueto said. “Work hard, execute, try to keep the ball low in the zone and work hard to stay healthy. That’s the most important thing.”
Sox plan patience with Yoán Moncada, Giants claim Yermín Mercedes
The Sox played Saturday without third baseman Yoán Moncada, who left Friday’s game in the third inning with right hamstring tightness.
“We’re going to wait, wait it out (Sunday) and see how he is Monday,” La Russa said. “Got checked today. There’s something there, but it’s not so much of a problem that we can’t be a little bit patient to see if it comes through. See how he feels.”
Former Sox designated hitter Yermín Mercedes was claimed off of waivers by the San Francisco Giants. Mercedes, who was named the AL Rookie of the Month for April in 2021 but cooled off and was optioned to Charlotte on July 2, was optioned to Triple-A Sacramento.