Sox Drawer: The Santiago screwball

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Sox Drawer: The Santiago screwball

For five years, Hector Santiago toiled in the White Sox farm system making a slow, gradual climb from Bristol to Kannapolis to Winston-Salem to Birmingham. Selected by the White Sox in the 30th round of the 2006 draft, he was concerned that he had reached his ceiling in the organization. He was good, not great. Translation: nothing special. Where will that get you? Usually not the majors. More often baseball's graveyard, where thousands of careers eventually go to die.

Santiago saw his baseball future and was concerned it would soon be on life support. So at the start of the 2011 season, he did something about it.

"I had nothing to lose," Santiago said in an interview inside the visiting clubhouse in Texas. "I was going into my fifth season as a minor league player and I was like, 'Let's try to get something in my arsenal that can make me better, get me noticed a little more and stand out.'"

The solution for Santiago was to learn how to throw a screwball, a deceptive and difficult pitch to master which breaks in the opposite direction of a curveball. Thrown by a lefty like Santiago, it goes from right to left, moving down and in on a left-handed batter, and down and away to a right-hander. Thrown properly, the ball can move as much as two feet.

Christy Mathewson was the first prominent pitcher to use the screwball in the early 1900's. Carl Hubbell threw it in the 1934 All-Star Game when he famously struck out five future Hall of Famers in a row: Babe Ruth, Lou Gehrig, Jimmie Foxx, Al Simmons and Joe Cronin.

Fernando Venezuela and Tug McGraw later made careers hurling the screwball. However, in the last 25 years, it's almost become a dinosaur -- pretty much extinct from the game.

Why?

Because the hand and arm movement is so unnatural, you can permanently damage your arm and elbow.

"I have a couple friends that are left-handed, but they won't get into it," Santiago said. "They're afraid of injury."

But not Santiago. He's willing to take the chance. That baseball cemetery is a few miles away. At 24-years-old, he's willing to risk it and so far he's succeeding.

In spring training, he was nothing short of dominant, giving up one run over 11 innings while striking out 13. Opposing batters routinely went back to the dugout shaking their heads in disbelief, losing Santiago's game of "Now You See it, Now You Don't."

"I guess it's been so effective because it's not really seen anymore," Santiago said. "It's something hitters haven't seen and I actually throw it for a strike, and can bury it when I want to. It's coming from the left side, and it's actually almost like a right-handed pitch."

When the White Sox arrived in Texas to start the regular season, there were rumblings that Santiago had won the job as closer, but manager Robin Ventura didn't want to announce it and put added pressure on the young rookie. Saturday night against the defending A-L Champion Rangers, the suspense came to a dramatic conclusion when Santiago entered the game in the bottom of the ninth, nursing a 4-3 lead, and pitched a perfect 1-2-3 inning for his first career save.

"This is a huge opportunity," he said after the game. "I'll do everything in my power I can to stay in this role, and succeed."

But as history proves, throwing a screwball has an expiration date, and hopefully a lot longer than a carton of milk.

"I try not to think about it," Santiago said of the injury potential. "I go in the weight room and I get my shoulder program done and try to do all the extra stuff to maintain and be able to keep doing it without getting injured. Just try to do a little extra when you have to just to prevent that."

If Santiago can stay healthy, and he continues to baffle hitters, suddenly the White Sox have quite a weapon in the back of their bullpen.

And that career that once seemed headed for a baseball obituary, will be given a brand new life.

Adam Eaton's defense has forced White Sox to change plans for Avisail Garcia

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Adam Eaton's defense has forced White Sox to change plans for Avisail Garcia

Adam Eaton’s outstanding defensive play in right field has altered the team’s original plans to give Avisail Garcia some playing time there.

Through 47 games, Eaton has played at a Gold Glove-level for the White Sox. He leads all major league defenders with 14 Defensive Runs Saved (DRS), according to fangraphs.com, which has made it impossible to play Garcia in the field. That has White Sox manager Robin Ventura considering other ways to get Garcia on the field, including taking fly balls in left.

“The emergence of Adam out in right field has made it different,” Ventura said. “It’s a different spot for (Garcia). Eventually he’ll be back out there, but right now, what works for us is Adam in right field.”

“Adam has been above and beyond what we really thought he would be in right field.”

Garcia, 24, has nearly been relegated to full-time duty as the team’s designated hitter in 2016. He has a total of 16 innings played in the outfield.

Last year, Garcia started 129 games in the outfield. But his collective struggles — Garcia produced minus-11 DRS in 2015 — with Eaton’s forced the White Sox to look for a defensive-minded center fielder this offseason. Whereas last year the White Sox outfield was 26th of 30 with minus-22 DRS, this season they’re fifth overall at 7 DRS with Austin Jackson patrolling center.

The team’s defense has been a critical part to the club’s early success, which makes it nearly impossible for Eaton to sit. Garcia could see time in right field on days when Eaton needs to rest. But he’s more likely to force Melky Cabrera to the bench for a day or two and has worked to prepare for such an occasion.

“He’s getting some fly balls out there,” Ventura said. “That’s probably going to be really the rotation starts coming in for him to be able to get out there and get on the field. Or if something comes up with Adam or we want to DH. I even thought of that the other night during the DH. Again, Adam feels like he’s good enough to keep going.”

Chris Sale's win streak snapped at nine as White Sox fall to Tribe

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Chris Sale's win streak snapped at nine as White Sox fall to Tribe

Chris Sale’s bid to win his first 10 starts of the season ended in spectacular enough fashion on Tuesday night for him to look at video.

The White Sox pitcher isn’t a big fan of reviewing footage of his starts.

But that’s exactly what Sale did after he endured the longest inning of his career and then some in a 6-2 White Sox loss to the Cleveland Indians at U.S. Cellular Field in front of 21,550.

Cruising through two-plus innings, Sale needed 43 pitches to escape the third inning. He only recorded one more out and allowed six earned runs. Vying to become only the eighth pitcher in baseball history to win his first 10 starts, and just the second since 1920, Sale was tagged with his first loss for the White Sox, who have lost 10 of 14.

“I had to see what’s going on,” Sale said. “Just trying to get a feel for where I was at in my mechanics and all that, seeing what was going on. I saw some stuff and (I’ll) build on that and learn and move forward.

“I don’t know if it was more (command issues) or just being bad.

“I couldn’t really pinpoint anything. I couldn’t tell you this or that. I stunk. I was bad. It was embarrassing.”

Sale said he didn’t review footage because he thought he might have tipped his pitches against the Indians, against whom he’s now 5-7 with a 4.07 ERA.

Instead, he wanted to see why he “ran into a buzzsaw.”

With two outs in the third inning, Sale’s pitch count stood at 32, including only five in the frame. He had retired eight of the first 10 batters faced.

But what appeared to be another chapter in a spectacular start to Sale’s season quickly unraveled. He walked Jose Ramirez on 10 pitches and Francisco Lindor singled him to third. Mike Napoli followed with a two-run triple that fell in between Austin Jackson and Melky Cabrera and put the Indians ahead for good.

But the inning wasn’t yet over.

Sale walked Carlos Santana on seven pitches and Juan Uribe won a nine-pitch battle when he dumped a 2-2 changeup into right for an RBI single.

Chris Gimenez started the fourth inning with a solo homer off Sale — only the sixth he has allowed in 71.2 innings this season. Sale issued two more walks and an RBI single by Lindor knocked him out of the game.

“Any time you see that, you are surprised,” White Sox manager Robin Ventura said. “This is an off night for him. The best part is it’s not anything physical as far as he was hurting. He had velocity. He probably had too much of it.”

Sale’s attempt to become the first starting pitcher to win 10 straight since San Diego’s Andy Hawkins in 1985 ended with his shortest start since Sept. 13, 2015. He allowed seven hits, walked four and struck out seven.

The biggest disappointment for Sale isn’t the loss of the streak but that he followed a doubleheader with his shortest outing of the season. Zach Putnam, Tommy Kahnle, Matt Purke and Dan Jennings combined for 5.2 scoreless innings in relief of Sale.

“That’s what gets me the most,” Sale said. “We played two yesterday — I had to be big for the guys tonight and was the exact opposite.”

“I stunk. I was bad. I was terrible.”

Sale’s offense had to reverse its latest trend to save him from a loss.

Despite a nice showing from Jose Abreu, it didn’t.

Adam Eaton jumpstarted the White Sox with a leadoff solo homer against Josh Tomlin.

But Tomlin retired 23 of the next 28 batters he faced, including 12 in a row, to improve to 7-0.

The White Sox finished with six hits and scored three or fewer runs for the eighth time in 11 contests. They’ve produced three or fewer runs in 23 of 47 games this season and dropped to 7-16 in those contests.

“Right now it seems that way that we are streaky,” Ventura said. “Nice night by Jose, that’s a good sign to see him swinging it the way he did. You definitely want to see some more runs and things like that.

“But seeing him get going would be a nice shot inn the arm for us.”

White Sox bullpen in as 'good' a position as possible

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White Sox bullpen in as 'good' a position as possible

They merely hoped to survive the doubleheader, but members of the White Sox bullpen feel as if they’re well positioned for success.

The combined efforts of Mat Latos and Erik Johnson limited the number of outs covered by the White Sox bullpen to 16 in Monday’s doubleheader. Latos and Johnson completed 12.2 of the 18 innings played, which meant no White Sox relievers appeared in both games. Of the five relievers to pitch, Matt Purke’s 2.1 innings was the longest stint. Given they have eight relievers on hand, the White Sox like where they’re at as the pass the midpoint in a stretch with 17 games in 16 days.

“That’s about as good as you can do,” closer David Robertson said. “If we’d have had two wins it would have been a lot better. But it was a good job by the staff altogether, the starters and relievers. The defense played really well, saved us a lot of runs. It was a long day yesterday.”

White Sox manager Robin Ventura only used Purke in the nightcap. In the opener, he turned to Zach Duke, Matt Albers, Nate Jones and Robertson, a group that ultimately closed out a 7-6 victory.

Duke, who pitched in parts of two innings, said he had a pretty good idea he wouldn’t be used in the second game and the same likely went for Albers.

“They kind of give us an idea what the plan is going to be that way we’re not going to be caught off guard by anything,” Duke said. “But like I say, when the phone rings you find a way to get the job done.”

The White Sox added Tommy Kahnle to the roster before Monday’s doubleheader and kept him in the majors afterward, opting to send Erik Johnson back to Triple-A Charlotte. The White Sox still have eight more consecutive games to play after Tuesday’s contest against the Cleveland Indians before a day off next Thursday. Given they’re set to play the New York Mets in interleague, they may stick with the eight-man bullpen for now.

“We wanted to make sure we were covered down there,” Ventura said. “You never know how that’s going to go.”