On a day when his fastball command was not there from the first pitch, giving up two earned runs in six-plus innings probably wasn't the worst possible outcome for Dylan Cease.
Cease, who started the first game of Tuesday's doubleheader against the Astros, got off to a rocky start by serving up a first-pitch bomb to Astros right fielder George Springer. Two innings later, Jose Altuve swatted another homer.
Cease allowed another Astros run in the sixth when his high fastball got by Welington Castillo for one of Castillo's three passed balls on the day and Yordan Alvarez scored. The Sox lost 6-2 as Cease fell to 2-5 on the season.
"I didn't execute pitches that great, but we had a chance to win, so that was OK," Cease said. "But I mean, it's hard to be happy with a loss."
In the nightcap, Ivan Nova pitched a four-hitter, allowing an unearned run, to give the Sox a 4-1 victory and a split of the doubleheader.
Nova didn't walk a batter in posting his 10th career complete game and second of the season. Nova has allowed only three earned runs in his last five starts. Ryan Goins went 2-for-4 with two RBIs.
The Sox caught a break when the Astros' Gerrit Cole was scratched from his start because of right hamstring discomfort.
It was the Nova's second complete game in his last five starts. In that stretch, Nova (8-9) has allowed one or fewer earned runs in each game. In his previous start, the veteran right-hander shut out the Tigers for eight innings. Since his run began on July 22, Nova has lowered his ERA from 5.86 to 4.51.
Back to the opener, Cease's seventh career start should be judged as much by what went right as what didn't go right.
– He kept himself out of big innings. In the first, Cease intentionally walked Alvarez to load the bases, then used his changeup to get Yuli Gurriel to ground into an inning-ending double play.
– He got 10 groundouts despite not having his best stuff.
– He became the fourth Sox starter to last at least five innings in his first seven starts, according to STATS LLC.
– And he recorded his first career quality start, uneven as it was.
"I thought Dylan did a nice job of getting himself out of that (first-inning) jam," manager Rick Renteria said. "He continued to work. We sent him out for the seventh and we were going to go batter to batter and let him keep working. He walked the first hitter (Jake Marisnick), so it was time to get him. He did a nice job. He held his own."
The Astros tacked on single runs in the seventh, eighth and ninth, the first when Marisnick scored on Castillo's second passed ball.
Astros starter Zack Greinke struck out six in six innings. He gave up two runs on RBI doubles to Eloy Jimenez and Jose Abreu.
Both pitches Cease served up for home runs were fastballs in the 95-mph range that hung in the middle of the strike zone. The movement on his curve and slider this season has been above the major-league average while his fastball has shown less movement than average, both vertically and horizontally, according to Statcast.
Still, he relied heavily on his fastball (48%), though only 38% went for strikes. His curveball had a strike rate of 45%, but he had trouble getting the Astros to whiff. He struck out two and allowed five walks.
"I didn't feel like my off-speed was that sharp today and I didn't feel like I had great fastball command," Cease said.
Renteria said Monday that command is an issue to monitor with Cease, and he viewed Cease's first time facing the AL West-leading Astros as "a big test" for him.
"As we do with all clubs, (we'll) be prepared to put a game plan together," Renteria said before the game. "It's all about execution."
Afterward, Renteria took the long view: Cease is making progress,
"He's getting better with every outing. Today was certainly a big one," he said. "Coop (pitching coach Don Cooper) was saying it's a lot of confidence you showed when you walked to load the bases in the first. I have confidence in Dylan Cease. ... He's got good stuff. As he continues to learn to command and execute, he's going to give himself a chance and put himself in a position where he gets deeper in ballgames."
Cease added that he's "definitely not discouraged" by the loss and agreed with Renteria's assessment.
"I feel like I'm making progress every start," Cease said. "For me, I kind of got a little feel towards the end. ... Just keep tweaking that stuff."