In a span of less than two months, Johnny Cueto has developed into a jack-of-all trades starting pitcher who has prevented the White Sox from sinking further in the American League Central.
Cueto provided another example of his worth Saturday night as he scattered five hits over a season-high eight innings in leading the Sox to a cozy 8-0 victory over the Tigers.
Cueto’s performance kept the Sox (40-43) from falling to a season-high five games under the .500 mark while giving their bullpen much-welcomed rest as they play nine games in their final eight days until the All-Star break.
“He should have been in here since Opening Day, that’s what he’s meant,” manager Tony La Russa said of Cueto, 36, who signed a minor league contract on April 8. “He’s picked us up when we needed it. We were talking about it earlier. It still bothers a lot of us about the records of our starting rotation. Johnny is still an under .500 pitcher, and he’s pitched much better than that.”
Cueto (3-4) lowered his ERA to 2.91 in 66 innings. He pitched effectively and efficiently in throwing eight scoreless innings for the 17th time in his career and the first time since throwing a shutout against the Padres on May 23, 2016, while pitching for the Giants.
“You work for this,” said Cueto, who routine includes running the stadium steps the day after he pitches. “I was hoping to have a good performance and like Tony said, I felt like I still had something in the tank.”
Cueto struck out five and didn’t issue a walk as he snapped the Tigers’ six-game winning streak.
Cueto also continued his mastery of Tigers slugger Javier Baez, who went hitless in three at-bats and now has one hit in 17 career at-bats with six strikeouts against Cueto.
Cueto trusted his stuff enough to pitch inside effectively to Baez, who has been vulnerable to breaking pitches on the outside corner throughout most of the season.
Baez struck out on a 84 mph changeup that moved low and inside in the fourth.
“In that case, I was trying to throw that changeup outside and it ran in,” Cueto smiled. “I was lucky on that pitch.”
The Sox are more fortunate to have Cueto, who didn’t make his first appearance until May 16. Cueto has allowed three earned runs or fewer in nine of his 10 starts. Cueto also pitched five innings in an emergency relief role on June 12 when fellow starter Michael Kopech hurt his ankle.
“He’s a pitching artist,” said La Russa, describing Cueto’s ability to pitch to all four quadrants of the strike zone effectively. “All from a delivery that hides the ball well. He very rarely misses over the plate, just got the edges. That’s changing speeds.
“By the time you slow your bat, he throws it by you. You quicken it up and he gets you out in front. It’s just a beautiful thing to watch from our side.”
Among Cueto’s 101 pitches were 27 changesups, 27 cut fastballs, 26 sinkers, 12 four-seam fastballs and nine sliders.
La Russa believed Cueto would be effective once he joined the Sox because of the way he competed against his Cardinals from 2008 to 2011 as a member of the Reds, as well as his relationship with pitching coach Ethan Katz from their days with the Giants in 2020.
“Johnny and him were very honest with each other,” La Russa said. “I think that connection with Ethan really helped.But upstairs, they made the connection first. I give (general manager) Rick and his team the credit.”