Johnny Cueto sparkles in White Sox debut

KANSAS CITY, Mo. — Johnny Cueto is here to stay with the White Sox. For how long remains to be seen, but the White Sox view him as more than a temporary plug-in to their starting rotation.

“We would be disappointed if he’s not,” manager Tony La Russa said before Cueto made his first appearance for the Sox against the Royals Monday at Kauffman Stadium. “And we don’t expect to be disappointed.”

They were not let down by Cueto’s six scoreless innings in his Sox debut against the Royals Monday. He struck out Whit Merrifield, Andrew Benentendi and Salvador Perez in order in the first, retired the first nine batters in order and allowed two hits and two walks, quite the opening act for the three-time All-Star.

Cueto exited with a 3-0 lead but the Royals scored three in the eighth on four hits against Kendall Graveman to rob Cueto of his first Sox win.

Cueto, 36, ended his final inning by throwing a 93-mph elevated fastball past Perez for his seventh strikeout, pumping his fist. He had to be a bit tired that inning after dashing to cover first on a ground ball that caromed off first baseman Jose Abreu but was scooped up by second baseman Leury Garcia, and then hustling all the way to the backstop for a foul ball that catcher Yasmani Grandal didn’t see. The ball was out of play. That came during an 11-pitch at-bat to Merrifield, who walked.

Sinking and spinning his pitches in the bottom of the strike zone, working quickly, staying ahead in most counts and sneaking the occasional quick pitch and altered motion into his mix, Cueto threw 81 pitches, 55 for strikes against a 12-20 team that fired its hitting coach Monday.

Cueto’s arrival had been long anticipated. He made four starts for Triple-A Charlotte after signing a one-year, $4.2 million minor league deal in April, which will be prorated. He posted a 5.17 ERA over 15 2/3 innings. Last season, Cueto was 7-7 with a 4.08 ERA in 21 starts for the Giants.

Those were serviceable numbers, but even with a proven track record that includes five postseasons between the Reds, Royals and Giants, Cueto’s market during the offseason was cool, although the Twins and Tigers from the AL Central reportedly expressed interest.

Cueto jumps in to help the Sox at a time when Lucas Giolito is on the COVID-19 IL — although Giolito could be back during this series — and Lance Lynn is recovering from knee surgery. While Dallas Keuchel’s last two starts against the Red Sox and Yankees have been good, and two of Vince Velasquez’ last three starts were good, that pair owns ERAs of 5.54 and 5.53 in six starts, respectively.

La Russa said all pitchers’ innings are being watched closely, and Michael Kopech, who will get an extra day and pitch on five days rest Saturday against the Yankees, will be rested more in one form or another.

To have too many starters “would be a great concern to have,” La Russa said.

That’s not the case for Tuesday, however. After Dylan Cease starts Game 1, the Game 2 starter is undecided. A bullpen game is possible but not desired, La Russa said.

Cueto was given a 3-0 lead to work with, thanks to No. 9 batter Andrew Vaughn’s sacrifice fly scoring Adam Engel in the third and Grandal’s second homer of the season in the fourth against right-hander Brad Keller.

Engel doubled on a blooper to left and stole third, setting up the Vaughn sac fly, and Luis Robert extended his hitting streak to 14 with an infield single in front of Grandal’s homer.

Whit Merrifield’s double to deep left scored two and Andrew Benintendi’s single on a 3-0 count scored Merrifield with the tying run in the Royals eighth. Grandal had a chance to get pinch runner Nicky Lopez at the plate on Tim Anderson’s relay on the Merrifield double but he couldn’t hold on to the throw.

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