'Pre-drafting': What Senior Bowl revealed about OL, prospects

989133.png

'Pre-drafting': What Senior Bowl revealed about OL, prospects

White Sox bullpen hopes its fortunes have changed in win over Mets

sox_pgl_05-31_640x360_696385603806.jpg

White Sox bullpen hopes its fortunes have changed in win over Mets

NEW YORK — David Robertson may call his next charitable endeavor No Socks For Wins.

Looking to change his and the bullpen’s fortunes on Tuesday, the White Sox closer wore his pant legs all the way down in a scoreless inning to close out a 6-4 victory over the New York Mets at Citi Field — one that snapped a seven-game losing streak.

Robertson, Zach Putnam, Dan Jennings and Nate Jones combined for four scoreless innings to lead the White Sox, who rallied from four runs down, to their first victory since the opening game of a May 23 doubleheader. In between, the White Sox bullpen blew three games late in Kansas City, including allowing a seven-spot in the ninth inning Saturday.

Robertson, who routinely wears his pants hiked up to expose his stirrups, runs a foundation with his wife Erin for tornado victims called High Socks For Hope. But after he allowed six runs Saturday, he wanted to mix things up a bit. Robertson said he also wore a different, lighter jersey and shaved his beard in between.

“Listen, we’re mixing it up,” Robertson said. “We needed a win, so I went with them down. I wore a different jersey. It felt uncomfortable, but it worked.”

The White Sox need more performances like this from the bullpen if they want to rediscover a formula that led them to a 23-10 record.

The unit recorded a 1.69 ERA in April as they stormed out in front of the American League Central. But that same group has struggled for the past three weeks with the low point coming in Kansas City when they collectively allowed 14 earned runs in 6 1/3 innings. The bullpen entered Tuesday 1-7 with a 4.85 ERA in May. Included in those totals are losses in games in which the White Sox lead by four, five and six runs.

“It was good to see the bullpen back to their old selves,” said starter Mat Latos, who allowed four runs (two earned) in five innings.”

Latos retired eight of the last 10 he faced before he gave way to Putnam, who struck out Asdrubal Cabrera with two aboard to end the sixth inning and keep the White Sox down a run. Jennings, who allowed a run in Friday’s loss, pitched around a single in a scoreless seventh. He earned the victory when the White Sox rallied for three runs in the eighth.

Jones, who lost after he allowed three runs in Sunday’s loss, pitched around a two-out single in the eighth to get it to Robertson. Robertson struck out Cabrera and Michael Conforto and retired Yoenis Cespedes on a fly out to right.

The bullpen also pitched a scoreless inning in Monday’s loss.

“You’re starting to piece that back together as rough as it has been the last week for those guys at the end,” White Sox manager Robin Ventura said. “It was a nice job by those guys and you’ve got to stick with them.”

Only Robertson — who has 13 saves in 15 tries — knows if he’ll stick with the low pant legs. But at least for one night they worked.

“It’s definitely a much better feeling than we’ve had the last few days,” Robertson said. “Knowing that we’re going to get the final out and get a win, it feels nice. We’ve been playing really hard, but things just haven’t worked out. We hit a little bump in the road, but hopefully today’s a start toward getting us back on track.”

How Hector Rondon transformed into dominant closer for Cubs

cubs_maddon_on_rondon_05-31_640x360_696263235809.jpg

How Hector Rondon transformed into dominant closer for Cubs

Hector Rondon is still good friends with Danny Salazar and Carlos Carrasco, two Cleveland Indians pitchers often linked to the Cubs in trade rumors. To the point where Salazar called Rondon during the offseason wondering if they were about to become teammates at Wrigley Field.

Rondon worked out separately with Salazar and Carrasco at the Indians’ complex in Arizona during different points in their recoveries from Tommy John procedures on their right elbows. Rondon mentions differences in their personalities and pitching styles and also marks that time in Goodyear by associating Salazar and Carrasco with his own different surgeries.

Instead of developing into a Salazar or a Carrasco — the kind of frontline starter the Indians envisioned when they named him their minor league pitcher of the year in 2009 — Rondon has transformed into a game-over closer for a Cubs team with the best record in baseball.

After missing almost three full seasons — and pitching 10 innings combined between 2011 and 2012 — Rondon now understands he doesn’t have the luxury of time or the ability to work through situations like a starter. He accepts the pressure and uses the adrenaline that comes from working the ninth inning in front of 40,000 fans. He is a survivor.

“Be aggressive,” Rondon said. “You have to kill the guy — or they kill you. That’s what I tell (myself). That’s why I always try to attack. I try to keep that in my mind to (always) be aggressive with the hitters.”

The “holy s---” moment for pitching coach Chris Bosio came during a bullpen session with Rondon in the second half of a 2013 season where the Cubs would lose 96 games, hours before a meaningless game against the Pittsburgh Pirates at PNC Park.

The Cubs finished with 101 losses the year before, which put them in position to select Kris Bryant with the No. 2 overall pick in the June amateur draft. Completing that race toward the bottom also created another opportunity for Theo Epstein’s front office — the second pick in the Rule 5 draft at the 2012 winter meetings.

Around that time, major-league coaching staff assistant Franklin Font worked winter ball for Leones del Caracas — the same team Rondon was pitching for in Venezuela — and filed good reports. The Cubs would carry Rondon and allow him to develop a routine and slowly realize he could compete at this level.

As Rondon kept firing pitches to bullpen catcher Chad Noble that day in Pittsburgh, Bosio could see the potential that made him such a well-regarded prospect for the Indians — and the ability to think on his feet and make adjustments.

The Cubs suggested adding a hesitation mechanism to Rondon’s windup, a gathering point at the top of his delivery to improve his fastball command and tighten his slider as a put-away pitch. The idea was to create better alignment toward home plate and help stop him from spinning off the rubber. The sense of timing and motion would also help bump up his velocity toward triple-digit territory.

“It’s like when you plant that seed, and you wait to see that plant come up out of the ground,” bullpen coach Lester Strode said. “That’s what he’s done. He’s just continued to grow, and every year he’s gotten better.”

Rondon got the last three outs in a 2-0 Memorial Day victory over the Los Angeles Dodgers as the Cubs bullpen combined for seven perfect innings, something a team hadn’t done in 99 years, according to the Elias Sports Bureau.

That made Rondon 9-for-9 in save chances — with a 1.04 ERA and 27 strikeouts and only two walks against the 63 batters he’s faced so far this season.

Both Rondon and Joe Maddon identified a turning point last year, when the manager took closing responsibilities away from him and gave him a mental break and the chance to reset. Rondon responded with a 30-save season, putting up a 1.10 ERA after the All-Star break and converting his final 11 save chances for a 97-win team.

“He’s just been more assertive,” Maddon said. “The biggest thing I think that happened from that episode when he was not closing, per se, was he started using his other pitches and he found his other pitches. He’s more of a pitcher (now) when it comes to closing games as opposed to just being this primal, one-pitch kind of a guy.

“So now when you see him, it’s not just about trying to pump fastballs the whole time he’s out there. He’s throwing slider, split, changeup, dotting his fastball. I just think that he got more into pitcher mode from that particular episode.”

Rondon’s story is the story of the Cubs during the rebuilding years, how they became the biggest story in baseball. It’s calculated risk, good scouting, effective coaching and a relentless attitude. From the rubble of fifth-place finishes in 2012, 2013 and 2014, the Cubs found a lights-out closer.

“He worked tirelessly,” said Strode, who’s now in his 28th season in the organization. “Even the days he got out there and didn’t have success, he didn’t come back with his head down the next day. It’s like he learned something from every outing.

“I’ve seen a lot of guys with his ability who think things are just going to happen — and they don’t have to work. He was totally the opposite. He worked hard. He grinded every day, day in and day out. And finally it clicked.”

Wrigley rarity: Cubs lose a Jake Arrieta start for first time since last July

stl_arrieta_offseason_decisions_05-31_640x360_696294467907.jpg

Wrigley rarity: Cubs lose a Jake Arrieta start for first time since last July

Even as Jake Arrieta defends his Cy Young Award, makes a case to start the All-Star Game and keeps the meter running toward a potential $200 million megadeal, he talks about not quite having the precise feel he wants, that in his mind he can be 9-0 with a 1.72 ERA and still searching.

The Cubs are surrounded by those enormous expectations now, and so much of that involves Arrieta’s evolution into the bearded face of the franchise and one of the best pitchers on the planet. Which makes it so disorienting when the Cubs actually lose when Arrieta pitches.

Until Tuesday night’s 5-0 loss to the Los Angeles Dodgers at Wrigley Field, that hadn’t happened in a regular-season game since July 25, 2015, when it only took Cole Hamels throwing no-hitter for the Philadelphia Phillies.

Still, the Dodgers didn’t so much beat Arrieta as they outlasted him, taking advantage of the softer spots in the bullpen, the day after four Cubs relievers combined to throw seven perfect innings. Plus a very good pitching performance from lefty Scott Kazmir and a Cubs lineup that all night only generated a Dexter Fowler single.

The Cubs had won Arrieta’s last 23 starts, tying the major-league record since 1913, first set by Kris Medlen with the Atlanta Braves between 2010 and 2012.

Arrieta needed 107 pitches to throw seven scoreless innings and finished with a dramatic flair, escaping the bases-loaded jam he created with three straight walks and a wild pitch. Arrieta fired three pitches clocked at 94, 95 and 94 mph and struck out pinch-hitter Justin Turner looking, causing an eruption from the crowd of 34,681.

Manager Joe Maddon turned the game over to Clayton Richard. The lefty reliever gave up three consecutive singles to the top of the Los Angeles lineup — Chase Utley, Corey Seager and Adrian Gonzalez — to begin the eighth inning and walked off the mound without getting an out and the Cubs trailing 1-0.

Arrieta truly burst onto the national scene last August with that no-hitter at Dodger Stadium. This time, after a 24-minute rain delay, Gonzalez ended the no-hitter suspense with a two-out single in the first inning.

Against Arrieta, the Dodgers (28-25) only managed another Seager single in the third inning. But Seager put the game out of reach in the ninth inning, blasting a three-run homer off Trevor Cahill onto the right-field party deck.

So Arrieta is still 9-0 — with an ERA that has dropped to 1.56 — and looking to begin another streak for a team that still has the best record (35-15) in baseball.