As the White Sox approach the halfway point of their spring schedule, today's game against a split squad of the Chicago Cubs produced an important checkpoint in the competition for a spot in the opening day bullpen. With Hector Santiago almost assured to be joining Matt Thornton, Jesse Crain, Will Ohman and Addison Reed, it is presumed that Robin Ventura will add two more names to that group to complete his expected seven man bullpen. In the lead for those spots are Brian Bruney, Zach Stewart, Dylan Axelrod, Nate Jones, and Eric Stults (with plenty of time left for fringe candidates to state their claims). And of that cohort, Stewart and Axelrod are likely competing for the spot that will play the role of Long Reliever, with the loser going to Charlotte.
Today, both Stewart and Axelrod were in action. Stewart got the start in wet and chilly Mesa, Arizona after Gavin Floyd, the scheduled starter, remained in Glendale due to the poor weather.Prior to today's game, each of Stewart and Axelrod had pitched in three games. Axelrod started in two of his appearances while Stewart had previously worked only from the bullpen. Each had been beat up in their first spring outing before righting the ship to varying degrees in their next two outings, with Stewart arguably the sharper of the pair. Essentially we were looking at an even race.
Today, Axelrod may have put a bit of daylight between him and Stewart. Stewart went three innings, giving up six hits and two runs while striking out three and walking no one. After an inning by Ohman, Axelrod pitched the 5th-7th innings, giving up no hits, no walks and no runs while also striking out three.
While Stewart can argue that he faced tougher hitters - the Cubs began substituting their already watered down starters in the 6th - he didn't acquit himself well against them. Axelrod can point to his clean sheet and say that he faced the best players the Cubs fielded - Marlon Byrd, Starlin Castro and Anthony Rizzo - before they left the game and retired them all.
Stewart and Axelrod likely have 4-5 more appearances before the White Sox head to Arlington. Thus far, they've been on the same schedule so we can probably expect a few more head to head "matchups". Grab your popcorn, Minor Role aficionados.