Lively finds way to battle back after shaky start against Sox

5:06 AM UTC

CHICAGO — One would think Ben Lively being one of the more reliable starters in the Guardians’ rotation come May would serve as a sign that things have gone awry for Cleveland.

Yet the veteran right-hander — now on his fourth team in five seasons – is one of the reasons the Guardians have maintained their place atop the American League Central standings, providing a stable presence on the mound and consistently keeping his team in a position to win.

A prime example of that arrived on Thursday night at Guaranteed Rate Field. Lively ran into a flurry of loud contact early, but still found a way to settle down and keep things close for the Guardians before they fell, 3-2, to the White Sox.

“The first few innings, it looked like he was battling his delivery a little bit,” manager Stephen Vogt said of Lively. “They just got to him early. But he really settled in and gave us [5 2/3] much-needed innings. He really battled tonight.”

Battling has been a theme of Lively’s surprising start this season. He entered the opener of a four-game set with the lowest ERA among all five Guardians starters (2.08), logging at least five innings in all but one of his four starts. Lively also hadn’t allowed more than two earned runs in any of those outings.

Considering he wouldn’t be a part of the rotation were Shane Bieber and Gavin Williams not dealing with elbow injuries, Lively was giving Cleveland all it could ask for and more.

But despite his solid numbers, Lively ranked in the bottom 22% of MLB when it came to hard-hit rate allowed, and that proved to be troublesome to open Thursday’s game.

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Chicago’s hitters peppered the field with an array of balls leaving the bat at exit velocities above 100 mph. After Andrew Vaughn’s first-inning RBI double (105.5 mph) and second-inning RBI singles from Paul DeJong (107.6 mph) and Tommy Pham (103.3 mph), Cleveland quickly found itself staring at a three-run deficit.

Yet, even after allowing a total of seven hard-hit balls through the first three frames, Lively remained determined to navigate out of his early funk. The 32-year-old finished his outing with 2 2/3 scoreless innings, allowing just two hard-hit balls during that stretch.

“I was out of whack and wasn’t throwing it where I wanted to,” Lively said. “I told myself, ‘I’m not going through this.’ I felt like I was very lazy to start the game, and once I started getting pumped up a little bit, then I started getting back on track.”

In doing so, Lively gave a taxed bullpen a needed breather. Cleveland had just come off a set with Detroit that featured 6 1/3 combined innings from the starters over the final two games. Entering Thursday, only six teams had received fewer innings from their rotation than the Guardians (185 2/3). Likewise, only the Dodgers and Marlins used their bullpens for more innings than Cleveland (151 1/3).

“We needed that,” outfielder Will Brennan said of Lively’s outing. “Our bullpen has been taking some shots, and for him to cowboy up and pitch [5 2/3], it was awesome.”

Lively holding the White Sox to just three runs also gave the Guardians a chance for a late rally, something they threatened to pull off in the eighth. José Ramírez golfed a ball 1.04 feet off the ground and sent it into the stands for a solo shot, which was followed by a 440-foot blast from Josh Naylor for Cleveland’s first back-to-back homers of the season.

But the pair of home runs didn’t create enough momentum for the Guardians to finish the job. Despite Cleveland getting the potential tying run on with one out in the top of the ninth, White Sox closer Michael Kopech got rookie Kyle Manzardo to ground into a forceout to seal the loss.

Considering how the night started, though, the score being that close late represented quite a surprise. Had Lively continued allowing deafening contact from the White Sox, the game may have gotten out of hand in a hurry.

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Instead, he provided more proof of what he can offer a rotation in need of whatever innings it can get.

“It was a very noticeable difference when he went out for the fourth from the first three innings delivery-wise,” Vogt said. “[He] really did a nice job making adjustments. He stepped up for us, and that’s what good pitchers do.”