The White Sox have enjoyed some much-needed bullpen stability recently, a welcome change from the walk-filled malaise that plagued the team's relievers earlier in the season.
Over the last two weeks, White Sox relievers have a 1.88 ERA -- fifth-best in baseball -- and that success has allowed manager Robin Ventura to feel comfortable pulling his starting pitchers earlier into games, thus handing more and more key situations over to his bullpen. Jose Quintana was pinch hit for after seven innings of one-run, one-hit ball on Monday against the Cubs, a move Ventura said was made to try to spark the White Sox offense against Cubs ace Jeff Samardzija.
It's a move that could've easily backfired a month ago. But Ronald Belisario, Jake Petricka, Scott Downs, Daniel Webb and Matt Lindstrom combined to throw five shutout innings as the White Sox finally broke through in the 12th for a 3-1 win.
"They’ve been solidifying a lot of stuff lately of coming in, keeping us in games," Ventura said. "Just really giving a chance to come back."
That wasn't the case for the first two or so weeks of the season, though. White Sox relievers were saddled with five of the team's eight losses through its first 16 games (six of the eight if you count Leury Garcia in there) as loads of walks punctuated a general ineffectiveness in the bullpen.
The walks are still there -- even in the last two weeks, White Sox relievers are averaging 4.50 walks per nine innings, the seventh-worst walk rate during that span. Petricka (four walks in eight innings), Zach Putnam (three walks in nine innings) and Webb (five walks in 6 1/3 innings) have had some control issues but have mitigated those by not allowing any home runs.
But Petricka and Putnam both said they and their bullpen mates have done less nibbling around the strike zone, which has fueled that effectiveness -- even if they're still walking opposing batters.
"Guys are starting to trust their stuff a little bit more," Putnam said. "We have some guys in this bullpen that have just outstanding stuff. So getting it in your mind to attack hitters, attack the strike zone and just trust your stuff more than anything, I think guys are starting to buy a little more into that right now."
Some brutal early-season weather didn't help, with cold temperatures proving to be a mental and physical block for a few of the team's less-experienced relievers. Losing Nate Jones, who had back surgery Monday, removed arguably the unit's most talented reliever from the equation only a few games into the season.
But this is the nature of bullpens: As a unit, they can struggle for two weeks and then dominate for the next two.
"When you deal with such small samples, you will have runs like we had through the first 15 games like everyone is pitching like their hair is on fire and we couldn’t get anybody out and we were walking too many guys," general manager Rick Hahn said. "You also are going to have runs like the last 15, where it seems like they are throwing nothing but strikes and getting everybody out.
"We’ve sort of had both extremes so far this year. Hopefully we settle in a little closer to what we’ve seen the last few weeks."