Sox 'pen helps end losing streak, shows turnaround potential originally appeared on NBC Sports Chicago
The Chicago White Sox losing streak is over.
"I did an Ozzie Smith somersault when we got that last out," White Sox manager Tony La Russa said.
La Russa called the last few days "miserable" as his White Sox slogged through five straight defeats against the Houston Astros and Pittsburgh Pirates before emerging victorious by a one-run margin, a 4-3 final over the Pirates on Wednesday.
It means that White Sox fans can welcome winners back to the South Side when Guaranteed Rate Field hosts its first full-capacity crowd since 2019 on Friday.
And fans will be able to do something else they haven't been able to do in a while, either: praise the White Sox bullpen.
The relief corps has been a near constant source of frustration for fans this season, the unit not living up to the expectations of greatness it set for itself before the season started. During the spring, Evan Marshall said that anything less than an elite bullpen would be a disappointment. Aaron Bummer said he hoped the unit would go 90-0 with a late lead.
None of that has materialized to this point, and outside of closer Liam Hendriks — who has overcome his own early bumps in the road to regain his status as one of baseball's finest closers — and currently injured starter-in-waiting Michael Kopech, things have been shaky, or at the very least, worryingly inconsistent.
But Wednesday, with the smallest lead possible and a slump-busting win on the line, the bullpen delivered, resembling the kind of group those preseason expectations envisioned.
"The expectations are still the same," Garrett Crochet said before the game Wednesday, a day after he had his own rough outing in the team's fifth consecutive defeat. "Everybody is going out there expecting to dominate, and everybody behind them watching is expecting them to dominate."
It wasn't exactly pure domination Wednesday, but it was a strong performance.
After Dylan Cease delivered 5.2 solid innings, Ryan Burr polished off the sixth. Then Codi Heuer struggled to open the seventh, surrendering a run on three straight one-out hits. But dropped into a jam, Aaron Bummer got out of the inning to preserve what was by then a one-run lead. Then Bummer pitched a 1-2-3 eighth, retiring all five batters he faced with the game on the line. Hendriks did his typical door-slamming — profanity included — in the ninth to earn his 19th save of the season.
Heuer's struggles aside, this is the way things were supposed to go for this bullpen. Perhaps Bummer's preseason quote on a perfect record was always hyperbole, but when the relief corps is humming like Bummer and Hendriks were Wednesday, you could see the hint of possibility in that statement.
"We all know what we're capable of doing," Bummer told NBC Sports Chicago last week. "It's figuring out, day by day, how to get to that spot where we feel comfortable and we're all firing on all cylinders.
"The bullpen's deep enough to be able to say if one guy doesn't have it that night, the other guy's going to come in and pick him up. That's kind of a blessing that we have, that we know we're still going to be able to get the job done. ... I'd much rather be firing on all cylinders at the end of September and early October than in the middle of June.
"You want to be the best you can be from Day 1 to Game 162. But we all hit speed bumps on the road. As long as those speed bumps don't turn into hills and valleys, at the end of the day, we're going to be in a good spot.
"For me and a lot of guys in that bullpen, it's kind of keeping the status quo, to keep staying afloat and keep moving forward so we know that once we do get rolling, we're going to be rolling downhill and it's going to be tough to stop."
Everyone who talks about the White Sox bullpen cites its extreme talent levels, and even in the face of poor results, that's hard to argue. Of course, finding consistency will be far more important than one big performance in late June.
That's what has been so impressive about Hendriks, who after a little bit of a rocky start in April has shown why he commanded such a big free-agent payday. He's picked up where he left off with the Oakland Athletics as one of the game's best closers and the dominant guy who blew the White Sox away in the playoffs last fall.
That kind of weapon is some kind of arrow to have in the quiver, and with all his talk of taking on as much work as he can, it's easy to see him called upon over and over again in October.
This time, he pitched a big ninth inning, with only a one-run lead to protect, to deliver an important victory for the White Sox.
"If anybody wants to think about the role of the closer with what we had at stake after losing some games and only one (run) up ... you see just how special Liam is and how important a true shutdown closer is," La Russa said. "That was a much needed save."
But getting the ball to Hendriks will be just as important a job. The White Sox looked to have as good a unit to do that as any before the season started, but the group of Bummer, Marshall, Heuer, Crochet and Matt Foster has not been as dominant as it was during the shortened 2020 campaign.
Those guys finding consistency would be a big help to the White Sox as they continue to chase a championship, even amid an avalanche of injuries. Getting Kopech back from his hamstring strain will make a difference. Otherwise, Rick Hahn might need to add relief help to his trade-deadline shopping list.
But Wednesday was a good day, a sign of the brighter days that could be to come from this much maligned group.
"Obviously, I want to stay in as long as I can. But we got some guys out there," Cease said. "Sometimes you make good pitches and bad things happen. Sometimes you make bad pitches and good things happen. But at the end of the day, their stuff is electric."