Left-hander Carlos Rodon is one of the biggest reasons the White Sox are counting down to their first division championship since 2008.
To do more than just win the American League Central, however, the Sox probably will need Rodon to look like the dominant pitcher who was one of the best stories in baseball early in the season.
On Friday against the Red Sox, Rodon showed some encouraging signs.
Pitching for the first time since beating the Pirates on Sept. 1, Rodon allowed one run and struck out seven while throwing 86 pitches over five innings during the Sox’ 4-3 win over Boston. Rodon hasn’t pitched more than five innings since throwing seven July 18 against the Astros, but his velocity peaked at 97.8 mph and he got 12 swings-and-misses.
Though he beat the Pirates in his prior outing, Rodon’s top speed was 95.9 mph, so Friday showed an improvement in his velocity.
“Felt pretty good, better than last time,” Rodon said. “Velo was a little tick up, which was good. Just went and attacked and got through five today.”
The Sox also got Eloy Jimenez back after he missed two games with a bruised right knee. Earlier in the day, Sox manager Tony La Russa said Jimenez, who was the designated hitter, still would feel some pain but wouldn’t make it worse.
La Russa also said Jimenez shouldn’t bother looking for the stolen-base sign, but that didn’t stop him from straying too far off second and getting picked off by Red Sox catcher Christian Vazquez to end the third.
Like Jimenez, Rodon’s health and availability will be a key storyline down the stretch for the Sox, whose magic number to win the AL Central dropped to 12. With his five innings, Rodon jumped to 124 2/3 this season after tossing only 42 1/3 in the last two combined because of arm problems.
Questions about Rodon’s durability arose last month, when he was out for much of August with shoulder fatigue. He then made two five-inning starts with decreased velocity and subsequently was skipped against the Athletics because of lingering concerns.
And though Rodon looked good against the Red Sox after being staked to a lead, thanks to Jose Abreu’s three-run home run in the third, perhaps the bigger test will come when the Sox see how he feels. Before the game, La Russa said that there’s no day penciled in for Rodon’s next start and that the outing Friday was ”very important” for a lot of reasons.
During this breakout season, Rodon has done his best work with extra rest. Before Friday, he had a 7-2 record and a 1.69 ERA with six or more days between starts. La Russa, however, said those cushions were different from this one.
”Before, he wasn’t dealing with this soreness, so this is new territory,” La Russa said. ”But we gave him plenty of rest, and he passed the tests.”
Between starts, Rodon said he was dealing with a little soreness but nothing worrisome. Soon, he’d like to get past the five-inning barrier.
“Just happy to go out there and pitch five innings and give our team a chance to win and let the bullpen take over,” Rodon said. “I’m happy with it. I’d like to go six or seven, but I’m sure that’s coming.”
In the third. Vazquez started the inning with a single and ended up at third after a wild pitch by Rodon and a throwing error by catcher Yasmani Grandal. But Rodon escaped without allowing any runs by striking out Jose Iglesias with a 96.9 mph four-seamer to end a 12-pitch at-bat, then fanning Enrique Hernandez.
The only run Rodon allowed came in the fifth, when Bobby Dalbec led off with a homer to left. He then got through the rest of the inning before handing things off to the bullpen.
“Third inning, I had to reach back for a few, got the strikeouts that we needed,” Rodon said. “Fourth was good, tried to get some quick outs, but they put together three or four at-bats that were eight to 10 pitches that worked my pitch count up. So they did a pretty good job with that. But I’m happy they let me go out for the fifth.”