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Bullpen depth key for Sox

7/18/2010
Setup man Matt Thornton was named to his first All-Star Game this season. Michael Buckner/Getty Images

MINNEAPOLIS -- Before Paul Konerko was named to the American League All-Star team, the lone White Sox representative for the squad came from the team’s bullpen.

How fitting that the relievers were so honored since that’s the group that has remained the steadiest, through the team’s early-season struggles on into their red-hot run that launched them into first place.

That the honoree was not closer Bobby Jenks nor was it J.J. Putz, who has made 23 consecutive scoreless appearances, is proof of the group’s depth.

Matt Thornton was the lone White Sox pitching representative, offering the baseball world a misinterpretation of what had been happening in the late innings this season when he gave up the National League’s game-winning three-run double.

When the team’s own fortunes are at stake, it has been much better. Not only is Putz on his scoreless run, but Jenks has rebounded from a shaky start to convert his last 15 save opportunities. It is his longest streak since saving 17 consecutive in the 2006 season.

“Obviously the start of my season didn’t go as planned,” Jenks said of an ERA that reached 6.35 at the end of May. “But during that time we had a lot of guys who were able to pick me up in the time being. Now that I’m back on track doing want I’m doing and throwing the ball well again, it makes it easier on those other guys just knowing what their exact roles are.”

Entering play Saturday, the White Sox bullpen led the AL in strikeouts per nine innings (9.14) and save percentage (82.4). They were tied for first in saves with 28. They were fifth in ERA (3.57) and percentage of inherited runners to score (27).

The left-handed Thornton and the right-handed Putz operate as a two-headed set-up man. Sergio Santos and Scott Linebrink back them up, with Tony Pena the long man. Erick Threets gives the White Sox a second left-handed reliever.

Putz entered Saturday’s game second in the AL in strikeout-to-walk ratio (6.67) and was tied for second among relievers in victories with five. Thornton was tied for first in strikeouts (50) and was second in strikeouts per nine innings (12.16).

“I think everybody is proud of the way they have pitched out of the bullpen; everybody works hard,” Putz said. “We just kind of go out there whenever the phone rings and try to get quick efficient outs. I think for the most part everybody has been able to stay efficient, keep their pitch counts down and be able to bounce back the next day.”

Add efficiency to the fact the White Sox's bullpen has some of the least wear and tear in the AL and it’s a combination that could keep the relievers fresh deep into the second half. The White Sox bullpen is 12th in the AL in innings pitched with 239 1/3.

And with the way the offense has been producing lately, the relievers are on high alert they could be needed in a key situation every night.

“It’s always nice to know you’re always in games,” Putz said. “Guys are showing up expecting to win now. Even when things weren’t going very well, it was still a fun group of guys to be around. It’s a fun clubhouse.

“There is still a long way to go but hopefully the veteran leadership we have here – it’s a fairly veteran-type team and a lot of guys have been through this type of situation – will make it a fun couple of last months.”

Welcome back

Carlos Quentin was back in the White Sox’s lineup Saturday one day after resting a bruised right hand. Quentin was hit by a pitch in Thursday’s game against the Twins.

In addition to the bruised hand, he had a sore knee last week, went through foot problems last season and broke his wrist two years ago when he slammed his own bat. Despite the history of injuries, manager Ozzie Guillen does not consider Quentin injury prone.

“When you play that hard the way he plays, you’re taking a lot of risk,” Guillen said. “When he dove for the ball [last week] in Chicago, I hold my breath. This kid comes out there and gives you 200 percent every time he’s out there. He plays only one way and it’s the only way he knows how to play.

“He got some freaky injuries, but when he hit the bat he learned from that. Every time he hits, he’s on top of the plate and got a chance to get hit a lot, but that’s the way he plays.”