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Pieced-together White Sox bullpen stretched to limit

Injuries, starting pitching failures and tight games have forced club to dip way too deep into relief reserves

Bob DeChiara-USA TODAY Sports

After the two homers the White Sox hit, the two homers the Red Sox nearly hit, and the two White Sox Red Sox pitchers hit and Hawk Harrelson’s subsequent call for blood, I may have paid too little attention to the two relievers Robin Ventura used in the last two innings on Wednesday night.

In the eighth inning, he went to Michael Ynoa. In the ninth inning, he went to Zach Duke.

And given the talent on hand, it was hard to think of a better alternative.

I thought about prefacing this point with, "What if somebody told you on Opening Day..." except that undersells it. Seeing Ynoa in high-leverage situations would be just as startling on May 4 or June 4 as it would’ve been on April 4. It's required a startling amount of chaos among the mid-leverage guys to make this the reality.

The first domino was Jake Petricka, who never looked right this year. He hit the disabled list one month into the season with a "hip impingement" that ended up requiring season-ending surgery.

That led to an unusually successful Matt Albers taking on all of Petricka’s homework, and when regression set in, it set in hard. Ventura was slow to shift some of the load to Zach Putnam, who was strangely relegated to garbage time for most of the first two months. But just after Ventura started righting that balance — Putnam’s leverage index went from 0.51 to 0.81 -- Putnam started suffering from elbow soreness. He went on the DL after walking the only three batters he faced in the ninth inning on Monday with elbow neuritis, which the Sox said was unrelated. (Putnam is good for a DL stint a year, so it’s possible.)

All this turmoil left Nate Jones and David Robertson as the only reliable righties, and Ventura leaned on them heavily. Both worked three consecutive days, and Jones had four appearances in five days. Ventura’s worked guys harder — Robertson was only halfway to Addison Reed’s six saves in six games in 2013 — but with the Sox unable to absorb another injury-related unavailability and a day game today, Ventura wisely backed off for a night.

That's how the game ended up in the hands of Ynoa and Duke, and it making complete sense.

The crazy thing is the above paragraphs don’t even rope in the long/extra relievers that are interchangeable over the course of a season. You expect some fluctuation on the fringes based on availability, innings, schedules, etc., but we've only covered the essential bullpen roles. Once you rope in the fungible low-leverage types like Latham’s Tommy Kahnle, Scott Carroll, Tyler Danish, Daniel Webb and Matt Purke, the Sox have already used 13 relievers this season (no, I’m not including J.B. Shuck) ...

... which is as many relievers as the Sox used all of last year (no, I’m not including Alexei Ramirez, Leury Garcia or Adam LaRoche). If you took team health and 180-inning starting pitchers for granted, this season will set you straight for at least five years.

This is what the leverage ladder now looks like on the right-handed side:

Opening Day Mid-June
David Robertson David Robertson
Nate Jones Nate Jones
Jake Petricka Matt Albers
Zach Putnam Michael Ynoa
Matt Albers Chris Beck

Ynoa, who maybe counted as Plan G at the start of the season and didn’t overwhelm Triple-A hitters, is now relatively entrenched in the White Sox bullpen, in the sense that there are multiple guys beneath him on the leverage ladder. He’s survived his first three outings without allowing a run, but with four walks over 4⅓ innings and two close calls on Monday, Ventura has to hope that the White Sox offense and a White Sox starter can show up on the same day in order to rest his two best relievers.

Duke picked a great time to step up, too. After a sneaky-ugly 2015 and a rocky start to the season, the Sox’ chief lefty has finally resembled the guy the Sox thought they signed when they could use him the most. He’s struck out seven batters to just one walk over his last seven outings, part of a hot stretch that reaches back into the last week of May. He picked up Putnam by stranding the bases loaded in the ninth inning on Monday, and he gave Robertson a rest by making a save situation look ordinary on Wednesday.

The Sox bullpen started the season with their lefties looking vulnerable. But with Duke coming up clutch and Dan Jennings grunting through scoreless work more often than not, one could say they’re the guys holding it all together.

They’ll need to work magic a little while longer, because the trade deadline is still five-plus weeks away, and second-round pick Zack Burdi just made his pro debut in the Arizona Rookie League on Wednesday. One way or another, though, I’m guessing the Sox aren’t going to spend a whole lot of time waiting.