White Sox searching for ninth inning answers

White Sox searching for ninth inning answers
May 25, 2014, 2:15 pm
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Ronald Belisario pitched well in high leverage situations as a setup man. So why hasn't that success translated over to the ninth inning?

That's the question White Sox manager Robin Ventura has been faced with after Belisario allowed three runs in an ugly blown save Saturday against New York. The right-hander has allowed at least one run in all three of his save opportunities since Matt Lindstrom landed on the disabled list — this after allowing no earned runs in his previous 12 games.

"I’ve never seen a guy where it’s just easy," Ventura said. "Even looking at a guy like (Eric) Gagne … More often than not, the tying run usually at least is on base or comes to the plate. That’s just the way it is. It becomes tougher. Even hitters, their senses are heightened. The strike zone might be a little tighter."

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Ventura had an up-close look at some of the game's best closers as a player, be it Gagne in 2004, Mariano Rivera in 2002 and Bobby Thigpen in the early 90's. Even those guys, Ventura was quick to remind, gave up runs and had their difficulties.

The key, though, was their ability to bounce back from those rough games. That goes for any reliever, any player — but the finality of blowing a save can be more difficult to get over than losing a lead in the seventh or eighth inning.

It's why Lindstrom, before the season, gave Nate Jones a miniature toilet to remind him to "flush" whatever he did in a given game.

That both Lindstrom and Jones are on the disabled list, though, has made things difficult for the White Sox. Lindstrom had prior closing experience, while Jones has a prototypical repertoire for a closer — an upper 90's fastball and a good slider, both of which generate swings and misses.

Belisario doesn't have that swing-and-miss stuff, instead relying on a power sinker to generate ground balls and weak contact. Daniel Webb and Jake Petricka have low ERAs but high walk rates, while Zach Putnam is less of a strikeout guy than Belisario. Scott Downs is a situational left-hander and Scott Carroll is the long man.

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So that leaves Belisario as the closer, for now. If there's one guy currently on the roster who could eventually take over the ninth inning, it's Javy Guerra, who saved 21 games for the Dodgers in 2011.

But Guerra wasn't called up when the White Sox designated Maikel Cleto for assignment earlier this month, and while he had a 2.33 ERA in 19 1/3 innings with Triple-A Charlotte, he only struck out 11 against eight walks. Ventura said before Sunday's game he expected Guerra to make his White Sox debut soon (Guerra wound up throwing two innings, allowing one run Sunday), but he appears a long way off from being considered to replace Belisario in the ninth.

Jones' return may provide a solution if Belisario continues to struggle, though there's no timetable for Jones' return. He's expected to begin physical activity in early June following back surgery earlier this month, but it still could be a while before he's able to pitch for the Sox.

In the interim, Belisario's the guy. He's been around for a while, and Ventura's confident he'll get the job done so long as he doesn't let those previous issues closing games out linger.

"I’ve seen Mo not close one out, but it’s being able to just put it out of your mind and get back in it the next day, not have it affect you," Ventura said. "Go out there and you are fearless to a point where you go back out and get it done the next day."