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Thursday, April 14, 2011
Santos' stats are tough to silence

By Doug Padilla

CHICAGO -- Sergio Santos held a recent conversation in a barely audible whisper, presumably to not stand out in the White Sox clubhouse any more than he already does.
Sergio Santos
Sergio Santos no longer feels like a converted infielder. He feels like a relief pitcher, and the results reflect that comfort level.

The 27-year old might be in just his second season in the major leagues, but he knows when it's a little uncouth to answer questions about your success when everybody else around you is drowning.

So it's understandable that the Employee of the Month at a struggling company preferred to use hushed tones.

His hot start out of a struggling White Sox bullpen has also been muffled because of the noise-making struggles of his fellow relievers. Only the Diamondbacks and Red Sox have a higher combined ERA from their relievers than the White Sox's 6.14 mark.

It isn't Santos' fault. He has yet to give up a run over his first five appearances this season, and his 7 2/3 innings pitched are the most of any White Sox reliever. And that comes on the heels of his standout spring training when he didn't give up a run over nine Cactus League outings (9 2/3 innings).

Barely two years into a reincarnation project when Santos was converted from an infielder into a pitcher, Santos continues to get more comfortable with his role.

"Becoming a pitcher, it's starting to feel more natural to me now," Santos said. "It's starting to feel like I've been doing it for a while even though I really haven't. I'm just getting in that mind set saying ‘OK, I'm a relief pitcher. I'm a pitcher. This is what I do.'"

And if this is what he continues to do then the White Sox's closer of the future could find himself with the ultimate of relief pitcher promotions before the upcoming weekend is complete.

Watching Matt Thornton's nightmare of start in the closer role should be enough to make Santos run away and hide from the prospect of taking such a thankless job. But that's not how Santos' mind works.

"Being a competitor, how can you not want that role?" Santos said. "You see your team bust their tail for eight innings to get the lead and they're giving you the ball showing you the confidence that they feel you can get the outs without any runs coming across.

"As a competitor I want to do that. I would love to have that role at some point in my career whether I'm ready for it now or years down the road. Who knows? But whenever they call on me I'll get out there and do my job."

It's not an appeal for Thornton's job. Far from it. The realist in Santos knows, though, that he needs to be mentally prepared if the coaching staff calls his number as early as this weekend's home series against the Angels.

Watching Thornton put up a 7.71 ERA to start the season, blow all four of his save attempts and have to endure defensive failures behind him have been both tough for Santos to watch, as well as serve as a learning opportunity on just how unforgiving the closer role can be.

"Look, [Thornton] is the staple of our bullpen," Santos said. "He's kind of the driving force behind us. He shows up early, gets his work done. He's had bad luck and everything and yet he shows up the same time every day getting ready to do his work.

"We all know in this game that it takes skill and a little bit of luck. And I feel fortunate that so far this spring and this season I've kind of had things going my way."

Manager Ozzie Guillen's hesitation to use Santos in the closer role no doubt stems from the fact that the California native is so new to art of pitching. Thornton, the veteran, started with the role, Chris Sale has been given his chances and even Jesse Crain, another veteran, got a shot in Wednesday's latest bullpen meltdown.

Santos wasn't available for that game after mowing down the Oakland A's over two innings during Tuesday's victory.

Inexperience or not, though, Santos' opportunity appears to have arrived. Guillen was asked about the reason for Santos' success.

"Strikes," Guillen said, during a moment this week not as volatile as his postgame press conference Wednesday. "I think he stays tall. His delivery is a lot better and he's got more confidence. It's still early, but he's got more confidence and he knows he's got great stuff. And when he builds confidence he knows he can pitch in the big leagues."

Santos' current scoreless streak is nothing new. He had a club record 12 outing scoreless streak to start his White Sox career last season. If that trend holds again, he still has a handful of scoreless remaining that could be used to close out victories.

For every 1-2-3 inning, it's simply more validation that Santos has what it takes to pitch at a high level.

"I'm not saying, ‘Hey, I'm going to get through this easy,' but just it's just saying, ‘OK, if my common goal is to throw strikes, get ahead, be aggressive then I like my chances,'" Santos said. "I like where I'm at. With the fastball changeup and slider that I have, I feel confident that if I make my pitch I'm going to get outs. It's not always the case. You can make a great pitch and they get a hit off it and that happens, but I'll take my chances as a pitcher and the way I'm feeling right now."

With the way the White Sox bullpen is going these days, it figures that those chances will come at the end of games now.