Lucas Giolito’s no-hitter gives the White Sox a breakthrough moment

If indeed the Chicago White Sox have become something quite presentable, if they have scouted and drafted and traded and developed well enough, if they have endured long enough, if they have found something in themselves finally, then what came Tuesday night in an empty Guaranteed Rate Field might well be what is supposed to follow.

That is, the little bit of magic. That is, the intoxicating moment that convinces them, that convinces half a city, that what has gathered in the south is more than the sum of these few guys and a good portion of a generation spent finding them.

Not long ago a symbol of how the White Sox could not distinguish themselves from irrelevance, Lucas Giolito, the 26-year-old right-hander and singular story in perseverance, on Tuesday night threw a 101-pitch, 13-strikeout, one-walk, mostly drama-free no-hitter, the 19th in White Sox history, the 304th in major league history, and the game’s first in nearly a year.

His final pitch, a fastball called by his catcher and friend James McCann and struck by Pittsburgh Pirates leadoff man Erik Gonzalez, was shot on a line drive to right field, where Adam Engel caught it on the run. 

“That last one, man,” Giolito said with a relieved laugh, “oh, my god.”

Said McCann: “I didn’t really want to watch it, to be honest.”

In spite of COVID-19 guidelines that plead otherwise but have their time and place, Giolito fell into McCann’s arms for a long while, then into his manager, Rick Renteria’s, and then arrived the rest of the White Sox. They’d won, 4-0. They’d won for the 18th time in 30 games, the halfway point of a season that looks like no other has, from the masks they wear to the echoes in their ballpark to the fact they will at most play 60 times in the regular season.

Chicago White Sox ace Lucas Giolito celebrates with catcher James McCann after twirling 2020’s first no-hitter against the Pittsburgh Pirates. (AP Photo/Matt Marton)

“It hasn’t fully sunk in yet,” said Giolito, who wore a Chicago Bulls jersey in the face of his Los Angeles roots. “It probably won’t until tomorrow. But, 2020’s been a very strange year. Obviously a lot of weird stuff going on with COVID, the world, the state of the world. So, you know, might as well just throw this in the mix too.”

None among them has played on a winning White Sox team, that a memory from eight years ago. Many, however, have played on a 100-game loser, on a 95-game loser, on last season’s 89-game loser. And so it seemed the celebration of Giolito’s feat, fueled by hard fastballs and sneaky changeups and Red Bulls, and the parts they each played in it, also served to honor what they seem to be becoming. 

They are young and daring. They are likable. They flat rake. They pitch on many nights. They laugh and they sweat and if they don’t already believe, they’re getting there. They are getting there. With the San Diego Padres, another franchise that has suffered for the better part of 15 seasons, the White Sox have broken out in 2020, just in time for baseball and a lot of weird stuff.

“For him, I’m sure, it’s a sense of accomplishment, and we’ve talked about it before, they’re the ones that are doing all the work,” White Sox manager Rick Renteria said. “We’re living through them. For us, that hug that I gave him, I’m telling you, I wanted to cry. It’s been a tremendous journey for these guys, trying to put themselves where they want to. There’s still so much season left. There’s still so many things to accomplish for the Chicago White Sox. But, it seems like you’re starting to see little stepping stones that are leading you hopefully to start believing that this group of young men are capable of moving forward in a really positive direction and a positive way.”

The reality of the game is that losing franchises and struggling players don’t often find their better selves at the very same time, that they in fact lose and struggle together, the losing sometimes causing the struggle, the struggle compounding the losing, a relationship that serves neither and nevertheless endures.

It’s what makes the White Sox and Giolito a wonderful story, or at least the first few chapters of it. The first-round draft pick of the Washington Nationals in 2012, Giolito was traded to the rebuilding White Sox after the 2016 season after six major league appearances for the Nationals, in the deal for outfielder Adam Eaton. Giolito became a regular in the White Sox rotation in 2018, made 32 starts, and was among the worst pitchers in baseball.

He made changes. He worked. He chose to become better. In 2019, he was an All-Star, and was among the best pitchers in baseball. Through seven starts in 2020, he is again with the elite.

“It’s crazy, man,” he said. “The weird thing is that, I always envisioned that I’d throw a no-hitter in the big leagues. If you were to ask me about it in ’18, I probably would’ve been like, ‘What the hell are you talking about?’ But that was a weird year. I think that it’s just a product of hard work, determination, learning how to trust myself, trust my stuff.”

It is notable that McCann was his catcher Tuesday night, for they carry similar pasts. A second-round pick of the Detroit Tigers in 2011, McCann was non-tendered by the Tigers after the 2017 season. He signed with the White Sox and immediately drew the assignment of the talented but wayward Giolito. Giolito has made 36 starts since the beginning of 2019. McCann has caught 32 of them. They were All-Stars together last summer. McCann, who backs up Yasmani Grandal, is a .347 hitter this season. Giolito threw a no-hitter by agreeing with McCann on 100 of 101 pitches, shaking him off once, even that single override being uncommon.

The White Sox mobbed Lucas Giolito after he completed his no-hitter. (Photo by Ron Vesely/Getty Images)

“We’ve talked about it,” McCann said. “We talked about it last year. We both had a down 2018. People wrote him off. People wrote me off. … As special as that 2019 All-Star Game was, with him and [José] Abreu, tonight is on another level. … Yeah, there is a bond in proving people wrong. Continuing to work and continuing to prove people wrong. We both have that mindset.”

So it is, perhaps, that they may all have arrived together, or close enough to together to make it work. From Giolito and McCann to Eloy Jiménez and Luis Robert, from Tim Anderson, the reigning batting champion, to Abreu, the three-time All-Star, to Dallas Keuchel, the one-time Cy Young Award winner who signed last winter. On a warm August night, they stood on a baseball field in an otherwise empty stadium and celebrated Giolito, who had been remarkable for a few hours, who has been something like remarkable for a couple seasons running. And they, too, might have taken a moment for themselves, for the group, for the little bit of magic they summoned.

“I think that it’s just showing what we — the team, the White Sox — are capable of,” Giolito said. “What we’ve been building toward for all these years now. We’re at that point where we’ve kind of turned that corner. We’re playing confidently night in and night out. Obviously we had a couple rough patches early in the year, but it feels like things have changed. Every time we come to the park we’re ready to attack the day, we’re ready to win a ballgame, and that’s what it’s all about. That’s how we’re going to get ourselves to the postseason and further.”

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