By Bruce Levine-
(CBS) The collapse of a bullpen is perhaps the most demoralizing thing that can happen to a major league team. In the case of the White Sox, injury and a lack of consistent contributions have been a source of major concern in the first month of the season.
One big reason for the early struggles — Chicago’s bullpen ERA is 4.58, 25th in MLB — has been the extreme work load the bullpen has had to carry. The White Sox are second in the majors and first in the AL in relief innings pitched with 92 1/3. That startling number means that Chicago’s starting pitchers are averaging a league low 5.6 innings per start.
There are other factors to consider for the evolving bullpen of 2014. Only Matt Lindstrom remains from the seven bullpen pitchers who started the 2013 season with the team. Four the current relievers have little, if any, previous experience in the major leagues. Learning the ropes at the highest level in baseball is a fishbowl-like experience that the faint of heart need not bother to apply for.
“It is always a learning experience,” White Sox manager Robin Ventura said. “This group is mostly new to us, but guys have a way of moving up the chain and sometimes down depending on they perform.”
The younger group of Zach Putnam, Daniel Webb, Jake Petricka and Maikel Cleto has shown some much needed improvement lately. Chicago’s bullpen is 1-1 with a 2.13 ERA and is 2-for-2 in save opportunities over the past 11 games.
“Bullpens are always a tough thing,” Ventura said. “They are always pass and fail when they come in. It is not the same as a position guy who goes 0-for-8 and stays in the lineup and get two hits the next time out. In the pen, the results are immediate and can sometimes cause you to lose a game.”
Veterans like Lindstrom and Scott Downs aren’t just important cogs of this year’s bullpen but also professors of bullpen wars. They are there to help the younger relievers overcome challenges.
“When guys have a question or need advice about something they can always come to me,” Downs said. “I think the example part is to do things the way you are taught to. Be prepared and ready when called on.”
The mental toughness that comes with bullpen success is a difficult road to travel.
“The whole thing for relievers is based on day-to-day performance,” Downs said. “I always tell young guys to keep an even keel. That is not always easy when you are facing the best hitters in the game at a point when the game is on the line. There are no easy jobs in baseball, but in the pen you are always in a position that if you fail, so does the team. To me it’s the best job in baseball.”
For young guys, there’s certainly a time for pause and concern when you are facing Miguel Cabrera with the game on the line.
“Coming in and facing guys that you idolized watching on TV can give guys some anxiety at times,” said Putnam, who has had multiple solid outings as of late. “That is where you learn from the experience that it is the same game you always played. The stakes are higher and players are better, but you are there to be an equal.”
Bruce Levine covers the Cubs and White Sox for 670 The Score and CBSChicago.com. Follow him on Twitter @MLBBruceLevine.