TORONTO — The White Sox have recently found themselves in uncharted terror-tory in the ninth inning.
But for one day Saturday Zach Putnam and the Gang navigated through what has become an extremely difficult situation in the late innings as they held off the Toronto Blue Jays 4-3 at the Rogers Center.
One game after Ronald Belisario was removed from the closer’s role, Putnam allowed a run over 1 1/3 innings for the first save of his career. Putnam’s effort and a late surge by the offense, including a three-run homer by Dayan Viciedo, lifted Chris Sale to his seventh win in eight decisions.
But it wouldn’t be the 2014 White Sox bullpen without a few detours along the way and Putnam encountered his first in the eighth inning when Juan Francisco hit a cue shot for a two-out single to put the tying runs aboard.
“I won’t say that didn’t run through my head for a minute because I felt like I made a pretty good pitch there, but he put a pretty good swing on it,” Putnam said. “You’ve got to kind of keep rolling. I guess that’s part of being the closer, pitching in the ninth inning in a save situation, you’ve just kind of got to battle through it and make pitches.”
With their top two relievers out with injuries and Belisario only occasionally effective in the ninth, the White Sox know they’re in a tricky spot.
Only Javy Guerra, who earned 21 saves in 2011, has any real experience. Putnam has performed well this season and Jacob Petricka seems to know how to get out of a tight spot or few. The Sox also like Daniel Webb’s makeup.
But until he has a grasp on who can do what, White Sox manager Robin Ventura and the coaching staff are keeping a close eye on the situation.
On Saturday that meant removing Guerra after only two batters following a one-out walk to Dioner Navarro with the White Sox ahead 4-2 in the eighth.
Lefty Eric Surkamp took over and struck out left-handed pinch hitter Adam Lind on three pitches. Ventura then went to Putnam, who somehow was facing runners on the corners as Francisco’s roller impossibly found a hole for a single.
But Putnam got Colby Rasmus to fly out to end the threat.
“There was a lot of stuff going on,” Ventura said. “There were decisions to make and we’re making sure we’re not getting guys hot all the time in the bullpen if you are not going to use them, or if you are going to use them … Yeah that inning took a little while with visits and things like that but that’s part of the game.”
That “stuff” also included a mound visit by Ventura in the ninth to gauge how Putnam was holding up with the White Sox clinging to a one-run lead. Anthony Gose opened with an opposite-field leadoff double and Munenori Kawasawki singled him in to make it 4-3.
But Putnam got Jose Reyes to ground into a fielder’s choice and Melky Cabrera flew out. Ventura headed out to chat with Putnam and instead of calling for Petricka, stuck with Putnam after he told Ventura he felt good and confident.
“I liked what I heard out of him,” Ventura said.
Putnam rewarded his manager’s faith even after he fell behind Edwin Encarnacion 3-0 in the count as he got the slugger to ground into a fielder’s choice for the final out.
“It’s just kind of helping each other, picking each other up,” Putnam said. “We have one guy in the bullpen right now who has some closing experience in Javy in the big leagues and the rest of us would be new to it. So whether it’s me out there, or Petey, or (Daniel Webb) or anybody in the ninth inning, help to pick each other up. But get to that point first, throw the ball, make good pitches, keep rolling.”
Marcus Stroman offered a fine example of such a hot streak for six-plus innings.
He outpitched Sale and held a 2-0 lead until Jose Abreu started a two-out rally in the seventh with a double to left-center. Adam Dunn, who reached base all four times, drew a walk to end Stroman’s day.
Viciedo then ripped Dustin McGowan’s first pitch — and 85-mph slider — for a three-run homer to give the White Sox their first lead. Alexei Ramirez made it 4-2 in the eighth inning with a two-out RBI single.
Sale (7-1) wasn’t quite as sharp as he normally is — he walked five — but made it work anyway.
The left-hander made said he didn’t know where his pitches were going but he still only made one mistake over seven innings when Dustin Mastroianni followed a two-out walk to Rasmus in the fourth inning with a two-run homer.
Sale allowed the two earned runs, four hits and stuck out six in a 108-pitch effort. But he was more impressed with how the White Sox handled themselves in a tight contest.
“Viciedo coming up with that big hit, the bullpen locking it down, that’s really the dichotomy between good baseball and bad baseball,” Sale said. “When you’re going good that kind of stuff happens.”