Nate Jones has given the White Sox confidence in the direction they plan to go with their bullpen.
After a very poor start to his sophomore season, the right-hander has flourished for more than two months in every role assigned by manager Robin Ventura.
The importance of Jones’ performance can’t be overstated as the White Sox have a shortage of late-innings relievers after veterans Jesse Crain and Matt Thornton were traded in July.
With the setup role now available, Jones has put in a strong bid to take over. Not only does Jones possess a deadly repertoire complete with a fastball that touches 100 mph with a slider and changeup, he also has regained confidence he can throw all three.
“I’m feeling pretty good with all three of my pitches,” Jones said. “They’re awesome when you throw them for strikes to get people off your fastball. Maybe that’s what I was running into trouble with early in the season. I wasn’t locating my secondary pitches, so they could sit on that. It doesn’t matter how hard you throw, they’re going to be able to time it and hit it.”
They haven’t hit much Jones has thrown since late May.
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After he saw his ERA balloon to 7.04 on May 27, Jones has been dominant. In his last 34 innings, Jones has a 1.59 ERA, 24 hits allowed and walked seven while striking out 43 batters.
He’s been even better over his last seven innings, striking out 12 with two hits and two walks.
Those numbers have Ventura pretty confident whenever Jones takes the mound.
“Jonesy’s come a long way from where the season started,” Ventura said. “I don’t know if there’s anybody as confident in the league right now coming out of the bullpen and locking down an inning. He’s got great stuff and he feels good. Anytime a guy has a 100 mph in his bag, it’s a pretty good weapon. He also has off-speed pitches that guys just can’t sit on 100 mph. He’s a very confident kid and we have a lot of confidence bringing him in any situation. Left, right, anything, it doesn’t matter. You want him in the game.”
Those words have to be pleasing for Jones to hear when you consider his first two months of 2013.
Jones was so dominant down the stretch in his rookie campaign -- he went 8-0 with a 2.39 ERA in 65 games last season -- the White Sox kept him in an elevated, trusted role.
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But Jones struggled to live up to the expectations.
While his ball/strike ratio wasn’t out of line with his 2012 campaign, Jones couldn’t locate his changeup or slider with consistency.
Hitters knew and looked specifically for his fastball with good results for the opposition. Through his first 19 games this season, Jones had a .289 batting average against. He allowed 23 hits in 24 innings and walked 12.
Since he began to locate his offspeed pitches and throw them with confidence, hitters haven’t had a chance. In his last 28 appearances, opponents have a .202 average against Jones.
Now that he’s endured such a slump and lived to tell about it, Jones figures it won’t be as difficult to turn around the next time he’s in a rut.
“That was a big struggle,” Jones said. “That was a long struggle at the beginning. If it happens again, I can maybe see it happening earlier (instead of) making it last a month-and-a-half, two months, whatever it was. I definitely see it as a learning and helping experience for sure.”
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The White Sox would like to believe Jones -- an affordable option in a role that can be expensive to fill -- could continue to help well into the future.
The White Sox allocated roughly 13.6 percent of their $109 million payroll this season toward the bullpen. Matt Thornton ($5.5 million), Jesse Crain ($4.5 million) and Matt Lindstrom ($2.8 million) accounted for $12.8 million of the $14.83 million spent on relievers. By comparison, closer Addison Reed and Jones earned a combined $1.275 million.
If the club opts to pick up his $4 million salary next season, Lindstrom is the only pitcher slated to earn more than $1 million.
But the future isn’t important to Jones for now.
“I don’t even think about down the road,” Jones said. “We really take into what Robin talks about, taking it one game at a time. … It doesn’t matter to me. As long as I’m still pitching in the big leagues, that’s all that matters.”