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 rotation.
“We would be disappointed if he’s not,” manager Tony La Russa said before Cueto made his first appearance for the Sox on Monday against the Royals 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 in a 5-3 victory against the Royals. Cueto struck out Whit Merrifield, Andrew Benintendi 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.
“Throughout my career, I have always put an emphasis on my first start of the season,” Cueto said. “I did it today. I was excited.”
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. Luis Robert’s two-run homer with two outs in the 10th against Scott Barlow gave the win to Ryan Burr instead. More important, after Liam Hendriks sealed it with his 10th save, the Sox (17-17) got an important win on the first day of an eight-game road trip.
“Sometimes things don’t go how you want them to,” Robert said. “We’re here to pick each other up. Today was a good time for us to pick up the bullpen.”
Cueto, though, was the story. He ended his last inning by throwing a 93 mph fastball past Perez for his seventh strikeout, pumping his fist.
“Wow,” La Russa said. “He’s so deceptive. It was an important win for us.”
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 12-21 team that fired its hitting coach Monday.
“I’ve done that my whole career,” Cueto said.
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. Last season, Cueto was 7-7 with a 4.08 ERA in 21 starts for the Giants.
“This is a young team with a lot of talent, and you can see they have very good chemistry,” Cueto said.
Cueto jumps in to help the Sox at a time when Lucas Giolito is on the COVID-19 injured list — although Giolito could be back during this series — and Lance Lynn is recovering from knee surgery.
La Russa said all pitchers’ innings are being watched closely, and Michael Kopech, who will get an extra day and pitch on five days of 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.
Cueto was given the three-run lead to work with thanks to No. 9 batter Andrew Vaughn’s sacrifice fly that scored Adam Engel in the third and catcher Yasmani Grandal’s second homer of the season in the fourth against Brad Keller.
Engel doubled on a blooper to left and stole third, setting up Vaughn’s sac fly, and Robert extended his hitting streak to 14 with an infield single in front of Grandal’s homer.
Merrifield’s double that fell at the base of the left-field wall behind a backtracking Vaughn scored two, and Benintendi’s single on a 3-0 pitch from Graveman scored Merrifield with the tying run. Grandal had a chance to get pinch runner Nicky Lopez at the plate on Tim Anderson’s relay on the Merrifield double but couldn’t hold on to the throw.