HOUSTON -- Because his recent usage has been limited by the team’s poor play, Jesse Crain has worked on the side to stay fresh.
With every effort, Crain knows he’s in guess mode as he may be needed to appear in that night’s game.
If the White Sox continue to play as poorly as they have of late, Crain will likely have more guesswork ahead, though it figures to not be about when he might pitch, but for which team.
Crain made his first appearance in a week Monday night as the White Sox returned to the win column with a 4-2 victory over the Houston Astros in front of 13,870 at Minute Maid Park. While the win helped the South Siders avoid a four-game sweep at the hands of the lowly Astros and snap a four-game losing streak, it was only the fifth time in 19 games the club hasn’t lost.
The White Sox remain 9 1/2 games behind the first-place Detroit Tigers and are nine games below the .500-mark.
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Crain, who tied J.J. Putz for a franchise record with his 27th straight scoreless appearances after he recorded five outs Monday, knows his team’s fortunes must change quickly or he stands to become trade bait for the first time in his career.
“I’ve never been a part of the trade speculation,” said Crain, who lowered his ERA to 0.57. “You hear things, but you try not to think about them too much. Obviously I want to stay here and win with these guys. It’s a great group of guys and I like playing here. I can’t control what’s going to happen so I try not to think about that stuff too much.”
Crain has done everything in his power to make the White Sox winners since he signed a three-year, $13-million deal with them in December 2010.
The free-agent-to-be headed into Monday’s appearance with a 2.13 ERA in 151 games with the White Sox and 169 strikeouts over 143 1/3 innings.
Crain has been even better in 2013.
He hasn’t allowed a run since April 12, a span of 27 innings.
The team improved its record to 21-12 in Crain’s appearances as he collected his 18th hold of the season. And Crain increased his strikeouts-per-nine-innings rate to 11.9, his best ever, up from 7.4 for his career.
“It’s not just easy situations of going in there and mopping up,” White Sox manager Robin Ventura said. “He’s been coming in to some real tough situations and coming through for us. It’s amazing what he has been doing.”
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Crain, who hadn’t pitched since June 10, continued his dominance to prevent Houston from rallying back from a 4-2 deficit in the seventh inning. He entered with runners on the corners and struck out the Astros’ fourth and fifth hitters, J.D. Martinez and Chris Carter.
He followed it up with a 1-2-3 eighth, including a strikeout of Ronny Cedeno to give him 42 in 31 2/3 innings this season.
Closer Addison Reed, who converted his 20th save in 22 tries with a perfect ninth inning, knew Crain would escape the seventh inning.
“When he goes in I have no doubt the score is probably going to stay the same,” Reed said. “(Today), not once did it cross my mind that even one run was going to score. He gets it done.”
Though he knows outings like this only improve the chances he’ll be dealt if the White Sox continue to slip, Crain, who said he’s flattered by trade interest and a shot at an All-Star Game appearance, would prefer to stay focused on his job.
“I don’t want to go anywhere,” Crain said. “I love playing with these guys. It’s something that I don’t try to get too caught up in. There are always rumors out there. Obviously we need to turn things around and start winning.”
The White Sox don’t want to think about the prospect of dealing away Crain or any other potential trade chips before the July 31 nonwaiver trade deadline. On Saturday, Ventura said he won’t think about those real possibilities and instead is focused on the team’s day-to-day operations.
Dayan Viciedo and the White Sox bullpen gave the club another day to ward off any dark thoughts.
Viciedo’s two-out, three-run triple in the sixth inning off Houston’s Bud Norris (5-7) helped the White Sox jump ahead by two runs and overcome an early 2-0 deficit.
It was the second straight day in which Viciedo tripled after he only had one in his previous 869 at-bats.
Paul Konerko also had a seeing-eye RBI single earlier in the four-run inning.
Nate Jones (3-4) then struck out three batters in 1 1/3 scoreless innings, Matt Thornton struck out the only man he faced and Crain nabbed three more strikeouts.
White Sox starter Jose Quintana allowed two earned runs and five hits while walking three in 4 2/3 innings.