Close-game experience helps young Sox relievers grow

Close-game experience helps young Sox relievers grow
March 2, 2013, 3:45 pm
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GLENDALE, Ariz. -- Though he and the other rookie relievers didn’t immediately grasp Don Cooper’s advice, Nate Jones now knows how to spend an off-day.

Early in the 2012 season, the White Sox pitching coach advised his rookie relievers to remove themselves from the diamond both physically and mentally whenever possible.

Jones admits he didn’t fully understand the concept until much later in the season when the club was in the throes of a pennant race. But the process of figuring that out is something Jones, Addison Reed and Hector Santiago could only learn through experience. Its just another reason the White Sox believe they can improve upon la solid performance from last season’s bullpen.

“I couldn’t tell you a game where I was able to sit back in the bullpen and go ‘ok, I’m not pitching today’ and kick back and relax,” veteran Matt Thornton said. “We didn’t have those games. You get used to it. It was nothing for us after a while. That’s one thing Nate, Hector and Addison didn’t realize is how many close games there were. The learning curve for them in that situation is huge, them being able to go out there and they’ve done it. A one-run game for them is nothing now.”

The trio, along with left-hander Donnie Veal, has plenty of experience from last season on which to bank.

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Two or fewer runs decided 85 of the team’s 162 games, fourth-most in the majors. The bullpen’s members also pitched 162 high-leverage innings last season, which ranked 11th among 30 teams. With never more than three veteran relievers on the roster at once, the White Sox young relievers had to share the workload. Santiago already understands the benefit because he and his fellow rookie relievers have proven time and again they can handle those roles.

“It put us in bigger situations and it helped us out because it proved to the coaches we can go out in a close game and get the job done,” Santiago said.

But it also led to more exhaustion. Less than two years removed from college, where teams play three or four times a week, Reed admits the long season caught up with his body and he adjusted his cardio program accordingly this offseason.

“(Off days) were pretty much the only chance we had to kind of check out and not really have to worry about things,” Reed said. “You just want to relax and kind of take it easy. If you go bowling or do something, you’re still using your arm. It’s beneficial to relax.”

Jones’ progression was slower than Santiago, who began the season as the closer and Reed, who took over the ninth in May.

Through the White Sox first 39 games, Jones had one high-leverage appearance. By the season’s end, Jones had appeared in 21 high-leverage spots, the fourth-most on the team, including nine in the team’s final 30 games.

He also appeared in 65 games and none of those figures account for the times he got “hot” in the bullpen but wasn’t used. Nor does it account for how the body deals with the grueling schedule. Suffice to say, by the time off-days arrived after the All-Star break, Jones knew what to do with the time. He suspects it won’t be an issue this season, either.

“Coop would always say ‘take those off-days off physically and mentally,’” Jones said. “At the beginning of the year I wondered, ‘what’s he talking about mentally?’ By the middle to the end of the year I didn’t even want to move off the couch, I was so tired. Now I get it. I cherished those offdays when it came to that point because that’s your chance to recoup and relax.”