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With pitching injuries piling up, it’s hammer time for a tested White Sox bullpen

Vinnie Duber Avatar
April 9, 2022

DETROIT – They’ll probably never make a superhero movie about Aaron Bummer’s outing on the second day of the 2022 season.

But the White Sox reliever stood with the mightiest weapon in the cosmos sitting behind him in his locker Saturday, casually chatting about his ninth-inning effort in a 5-2 win over the Tigers while Mjolnir rested.

For all you folks out there who have better things to do with your time than memorize the details of the Marvel Universe, that’s Thor’s hammer I’m talking about. It’s this year’s prize for any member of the White Sox bullpen who strikes out the side in an inning. Last year, such an accomplishment earned Liam Hendriks’ LEGO version of the Infinity Gauntlet, famously sported by the villain Thanos in the Marvel movies. This season, the victor gets to wield a more heroic LEGO construction.

While Bummer’s work Saturday had little to do with saving the universe, he did save the White Sox’ first win of the campaign. The odds weren’t an Avengers-level threat, but there are some steep challenges staring the White Sox’ pitching staff in the collective face.

Already on the second day of the season, the team was painted into a corner of sorts, Tony La Russa unable to call on back-end studs like Hendriks and Kendall Graveman after laborious work in Game 1, which the Tigers won on a walk-off single against Hendriks.

Bummer pitched Friday, too, throwing 24 pitches and not making it out of his designated inning before chucking 24 more Saturday. This time around, he allowed singles to the first two hitters he faced, putting him in a jam in which he had to retire three consecutive would-be tying runs.

He struck all three out. Hence the hammer.

“(I’m) not really liking the path that I’m on, that every ball in play is a hit and every out is a strikeout. But we’ll take it,” Bummer said. “Baseball is kind of – especially as a reliever, you kind of get punched a lot. It’s how you kind of stand up and how you respond to getting punched in the mouth.

“I thought today was a pretty good day to come back after yesterday and make some pitches and get the job done.”

The success of one day does not earn this bullpen an exhale, though.

It’ll be on the relief corps to navigate these kinds of waters for a while. Not only are starters across baseball not up to their usual workloads coming off a shortened spring training, but the White Sox are suddenly down their top two starting pitchers. Lance Lynn had knee surgery that will keep him out a couple months, while Lucas Giolito – whose injury-shortened, four-inning start on Opening Day pressed relievers into unplanned duty – is likely heading to the IL, too, the optimistic outlook being that he’ll miss only a couple starts.

There will be pitchers assigned to fill those rotation spots, and the White Sox are confident in depth that, from an outside perspective, didn’t look too deep when the season opened. But whether those are bullpen transfers or minor league call-ups, there will be innings to pitch, and it is the relievers’ jobs to pitch them. Then they need to keep pitching, all without burning out. Because they’ll be needed over and over again.

Kyle Crick couldn’t make it through an inning on Friday, providing more work for Graveman. Bummer couldn’t complete his inning, providing more work for Hendriks.

Reynaldo López, someone who’s on this staff as an innings eater out of the bullpen, recorded only three outs on Saturday, forcing more work on his fellow relief arms. And this is all without Joe Kelly and Ryan Burr, two bullpen arms who opened the season on the IL.

It’s their job, sure. But already the conditions are, to borrow from the closer, crappy.

“That’s what we’re here for,” Hendriks said Friday. “We’re the janitors. We come in and clean up everybody else’s crap. That’s our job right now. We need to just suck it up and take whatever we need to get into a situation where the starters will pick us up later in the year.”

That would have been the assignment with a fully healthy rotation. Now 40 percent of it is on the shelf. Doesn’t change the assignment, though.

“When the starters start going down, then the ‘pen has to pick up the slack,” Yasmani Grandal said. “And then vice versa: Once the starters are back, then the ‘pen can take a breather. We’re going to take it one day at a time, get whatever it is that we can get from the starters and then go to the ‘pen.”

It’s only been two days, but the bullpen has delivered positive contributions along with the wince-inducing ones.

Chiefly, the standout has been Bennett Sousa, the young lefty reliever who made his big league debut with a 1-2-3 inning Friday. He was back out there Saturday – for what Bummer guessed was the first back-to-back of Sousa’s pro career; that kind of thing doesn’t happen much in the minors – and he managed to retire more hitters than he faced, thanks to a double-play ball that erased an inherited runner.

Sousa also got his first strikeout Saturday, and with it a beer shower from his teammates.

It’s been impressive and downright necessary work with what the bullpen is being asked to do.

“He’s gone out there with his balls every time,” Bummer said of Sousa. “He has made his pitches. It’s a lot of fun to watch. It’s fun to watch young guys come in and go in there, straight compete. (He’s) going out there throwing his best stuff in the strike zone, and he’s getting outs.

“It’s a cool thing to see, (for him) to go out there today and do his job in a higher leverage situation and pick up the innings we needed. That’s kind of a big deal to be able to go out there and do it and understand you are ready to go and you have to be ready to go out there and go pitch.

“He went out and passed with flying colors”

As positive a contribution as Sousa has made in the very early going, though, the White Sox will need a lot more like it to keep their pitching staff afloat, and another test looms Sunday, when Michael Kopech makes his first start of the season. With workload management already hanging over his head, a COVID bout in late February put him behind schedule in his ramp up. Poor results during his final outing of the spring didn’t inspire confidence from the outside, but the focus should be on how long he’s allowed to pitch as much as how many batters he’s blowing away with that impressive fastball.

It’s not expected to be a lot of pitches or a lot of innings from Kopech in the early part of the year, the White Sox hoping to conserve his bullets for the season’s most important games in September and October. And so, more work for the bullpen.

We’ve yet to see Tanner Banks, who made the team after years in the minors and has a starter’s background that can help the club in the innings department. But with the White Sox requiring a replacement for Giolito, too, he can’t be ruled out as a candidate for a rotation spot. Johnny Cueto, whose minor league deal is expected to be announced soon, will require plenty of time in Arizona and at Triple-A Charlotte before he’s able to even be considered as a help.

And so more superheroics will be required from the relievers.

There’s no ceremony for receiving the hammer just yet. I suggested it be lodged in the ground and lifted, which got a positive reaction from Bummer. For now, the relief corps will take Mjolnir, without much pomp, as a sign of a job well done.

To keep this pitching staff going against some pretty steep odds, they’ll need to do even better. They’ll need to be worthy.

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