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Tony La Russa sees what’s plaguing Aaron Bummer.
“There’s a guy who’s trying too hard.”
One of the White Sox’ late-game pitchers – and the lone lefty in the back-end group – is off to a rough start in 2022.
He’s made eight appearances, just one of which has ended without someone reaching base. He’s given up runs in four of them, including a blown save over the weekend in Minneapolis and the three runs he allowed in the 10th inning of Thursday’s 5-2 loss to the Royals, which made it three consecutive dropped series for the South Siders after they opened the campaign winning three straight sets.
Bummer has looked like anything but the guy who has dominated previously in his career, the ground-ball specialist searching for his command. He’s walked eight batters in his 7.2 innings. Thursday, he walked two of the first three hitters he faced in the 10th, his second inning of work after a scoreless ninth, and both came around to score on a two-out base hit.
It’s been an unfortunate trend for a guy the White Sox are counting on at the back end of their bullpen.
“In the first two, three weeks of the season, I’ve put my team in some pretty crappy situations,” Bummer said, bluntly, after the loss, which dropped the White Sox to 1-9 in their last 10 games, “whether or not it’s guys having to come in behind me or just not making pitches when I need to. So simply, I need to get better.
“The way I’ve been throwing the ball isn’t the way I want to throw the ball. It’s not the way that I know that I can.”
Though fellow reliever Liam Hendriks spent a while talking about players, including himself, trying to do too much during the White Sox’ recently concluded eight-game losing streak, Bummer didn’t exactly share his manager’s assessment that he is pressing.
But he’s well aware things aren’t right.
“I think it’s the ebbs and flows of the season. We all go through stuff and you have highs and lows, and you just kind of ride the wave with that,” Bummer said. “But there’s a lot of work that needs to be done to get to where I want to be, whether or not that’s pressing or whether or not that’s just putting in the work that’s needed to get the job done and get to where I want to be.
“I’m looking at it that way. I’m putting in the work with Ethan (Katz) and (Curt Hasler), trying to figure out the best way to move forward and to get back to what I know I can be.”
The back end of the bullpen has been a mixed bag for the White Sox, who were dealt preseason injuries to Joe Kelly and Garrett Crochet. Without them, Bummer hasn’t fared well, and only half of the heavyweight 1-2 punch of Hendriks and Kendall Graveman has found consistency. Graveman has been spectacular, with a 1.74 ERA, while Hendriks has had some early-season struggles and owns a 6.14 ERA to go along with his four saves.
Kelly figures to provide a big boost soon. He’s starting a rehab assignment this weekend at Triple-A Charlotte, and the team is downright giddy about adding him to the mix. La Russa said that Kelly will likely require no fewer than three outings facing minor league hitters before making his South Side debut.
But while some bullpen arms, such as Tanner Banks and Bennett Sousa, have proven pleasant surprises amid the injuries, Bummer counts as someone who was going to be relied upon regardless of the team’s health situation. Adding Kelly will, perhaps, put less pressure on Bummer, what with three accomplished veterans at the back end. But Bummer is still a critical arm in the bullpen, and he needs to get right.
“Breathe. Just breathe,” La Russa said. “‘You are at 100 percent, don’t try harder.’ I mean, it’s a very human response if you feel the responsibility, but that’s part of pitching for a contending club. He dealt with it last year. You’ve got to breathe.”
Don’t expect La Russa to turn away from using Bummer. That’s a reflection of the strategy of trying to get Bummer out of his funk, as well as an example of how important an arm he is to this team.
“No,” La Russa responded to a question about whether seeing a player try too hard changes his thoughts about using them. “I think about how to correct trying too hard.”
Indeed, as La Russa mentioned in his postgame comments, there was much more to Thursday’s loss than just Bummer issuing two walks and giving up a base hit in extra innings. The White Sox’ bats went cold again after they scored seven runs Wednesday, unable to do much of anything against Brad Keller on a freezing, rainy April afternoon. The defense broke down late, too, with the actual winning run scoring not because of Bummer but because Reese McGuire – who has been lauded for his efforts behind the plate this season – couldn’t come up with a Bummer pitch, the passed ball bringing the free runner home from third base.
For the most part, including Bummer’s work in the ninth inning, the White Sox’ pitching allowed them a chance to win. But when the silent bats were joined by pitching and defensive issues in the 10th, it made it really difficult to win the ballgame, the sort of breakdown in all facets that was common during the eight-game skid.
While the effects of a shortened spring should begin to dissipate as the season goes on and starting pitchers get their legs under them, the bullpen will become no less essential, particularly for a team that has its eyes on a deep October run and winning the World Series.
The White Sox will need Bummer, especially without the services of another left-hander in Crochet, to get right if they’re going to have the kind of relief corps that can power such a run.
“At the end of the day, I’m not making those pitches (to end troublesome situations),” Bummer said. “You can take it for what it is, but it’s a game of wins and losses, it’s a game of doing your job or not doing your job. It’s just one of those things where, whether or not being one pitch away, I didn’t do my job.
“The balls that were put in play were ground balls, so that’s a positive. The walks and things, all those things have got to go away.”
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