The White Sox bullpen has been as consistent as they come for a month.
But one thing the team lacks is a pure strikeout pitcher.
Without a flame-thrower in the ninth inning, White Sox opponents have more chances to put the ball in play, which inevitably leads to games like Saturday’s 4-3 loss to the New York Yankees in 10 innings.
Closer Ronald Belisario blew his first save with three runs allowed and Jacoby Ellsbury hit a solo homer an inning later off Zach Putnam as the White Sox dropped to 19-3 when leading after eight innings. The collapse in front of 33,413 at U.S. Cellular Field overshadowed a standout performance by starter John Danks, who pitched eight scoreless innings.
“It's hard,” White Sox manager Robin Ventura said. “That ninth inning’s the hardest one, it really is. I think guys’ senses are heightened in the ninth inning, just everybody on the field, and hitters are putting it in play and I don't think you see the same kind of at-bats in the ninth inning that you do other times. Hitters are tougher in the ninth inning than they are at any other point.”
Belisario surely hasn’t seen the kind of contact the Yankees managed to put together in the ninth too often.
Ellsbury started a one-out rally with a single and moved to second on defensive indifference. With first baseman Adam Dunn positioned well off the line, Alfonso Soriano then kept a grounder fair inside the bag for an RBI-double to right. Yangervis Solarte then singled in a run to make 3-2. Ichiro Suzuki walked and Brian McCann dumped a pinch-hit single over the head of Alexei Ramirez into center to tie the score. Belisario retired Brendan Ryan to preserve a tie.
After he hadn’t allowed an earned run since April 17 in the setup role, Belisario has allowed five in three save attempts. Belisario and the man he replaced earlier this week, the injured Matt Lindstrom, have blown four of 12 save attempts.
“That’s the game,” Belisario said. “That’s the game. I’m making good pitches. They hit it, I don’t even know where. No luck today.
“(The ninth inning is) kind of the same but there are some differences. You have to finish the game, to win it.”
Putnam, who had allowed one run in his last 11 appearances, made a mistake up and in and Ellsbury made him pay with a 352-foot solo homer with two outs.
Prior to Saturday, White Sox relievers had a 2.58 ERA since April 26, the lowest mark among American League teams.
But one shortcoming: White Sox relievers are only fanning 6.71 batters per nine innings, the lowest average in the majors. The team traded closer Addison Reed, who averaged 9.5 strikeouts every nine innings, to Arizona in the offseason with the belief Nate Jones could step in.
But Jones and his strikeout-rate of 9.26 batters per nine have been injured for all but two appearances leaving the White Sox bullpen has to rely heavily on its defense.
“You look at Belisario’s innings and there were some pretty unusual hits in there — balls right down the line and flares right behind the heads of infielders,” Putnam said. “It’s just going to happen. What we have to do as a bullpen after a game like that is come back and be ready the next day. You play a lot of games and you can’t get too high or too low and this is one of those times.”
Danks didn’t seem too down even though he watched a gem go up in flames.
He set down the first seven batters he faced and didn’t allow a hit until Teixeira doubled with two outs in the fourth inning. But with pinpoint control working in his favor, he only rolled from there.
Danks retired the next 12 batters he faced before he allowed two singles in the top of the eighth inning with two outs. Even then, Danks fought back as he got Brett Gardner to fly out to right field.
He allowed three hits and struck out four over eight innings.
Danks asked to start the ninth inning but had no issues with the decision of the coaching staff — Ventura was ejected in the second inning — to give Belisario a clean slate.
“I tried, but you've got to respect that,” Danks said. “Hindsight's 20-20 and like I said, we have all the faith in the world in Belisario and I want him out there the next time I pitch.
“I truly hope Belisario's in to save my next game. It's one of those days that ... stuff happens.”