White Sox

Sox Drawer: The Santiago screwball

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Sox Drawer: The Santiago screwball

For five years, Hector Santiago toiled in the White Sox farm system making a slow, gradual climb from Bristol to Kannapolis to Winston-Salem to Birmingham. Selected by the White Sox in the 30th round of the 2006 draft, he was concerned that he had reached his ceiling in the organization. He was good, not great. Translation: nothing special. Where will that get you? Usually not the majors. More often baseball's graveyard, where thousands of careers eventually go to die.

Santiago saw his baseball future and was concerned it would soon be on life support. So at the start of the 2011 season, he did something about it.

"I had nothing to lose," Santiago said in an interview inside the visiting clubhouse in Texas. "I was going into my fifth season as a minor league player and I was like, 'Let's try to get something in my arsenal that can make me better, get me noticed a little more and stand out.'"

The solution for Santiago was to learn how to throw a screwball, a deceptive and difficult pitch to master which breaks in the opposite direction of a curveball. Thrown by a lefty like Santiago, it goes from right to left, moving down and in on a left-handed batter, and down and away to a right-hander. Thrown properly, the ball can move as much as two feet.

Christy Mathewson was the first prominent pitcher to use the screwball in the early 1900's. Carl Hubbell threw it in the 1934 All-Star Game when he famously struck out five future Hall of Famers in a row: Babe Ruth, Lou Gehrig, Jimmie Foxx, Al Simmons and Joe Cronin.

Fernando Venezuela and Tug McGraw later made careers hurling the screwball. However, in the last 25 years, it's almost become a dinosaur -- pretty much extinct from the game.

Why?

Because the hand and arm movement is so unnatural, you can permanently damage your arm and elbow.

"I have a couple friends that are left-handed, but they won't get into it," Santiago said. "They're afraid of injury."

But not Santiago. He's willing to take the chance. That baseball cemetery is a few miles away. At 24-years-old, he's willing to risk it and so far he's succeeding.

In spring training, he was nothing short of dominant, giving up one run over 11 innings while striking out 13. Opposing batters routinely went back to the dugout shaking their heads in disbelief, losing Santiago's game of "Now You See it, Now You Don't."

"I guess it's been so effective because it's not really seen anymore," Santiago said. "It's something hitters haven't seen and I actually throw it for a strike, and can bury it when I want to. It's coming from the left side, and it's actually almost like a right-handed pitch."

When the White Sox arrived in Texas to start the regular season, there were rumblings that Santiago had won the job as closer, but manager Robin Ventura didn't want to announce it and put added pressure on the young rookie. Saturday night against the defending A-L Champion Rangers, the suspense came to a dramatic conclusion when Santiago entered the game in the bottom of the ninth, nursing a 4-3 lead, and pitched a perfect 1-2-3 inning for his first career save.

"This is a huge opportunity," he said after the game. "I'll do everything in my power I can to stay in this role, and succeed."

But as history proves, throwing a screwball has an expiration date, and hopefully a lot longer than a carton of milk.

"I try not to think about it," Santiago said of the injury potential. "I go in the weight room and I get my shoulder program done and try to do all the extra stuff to maintain and be able to keep doing it without getting injured. Just try to do a little extra when you have to just to prevent that."

If Santiago can stay healthy, and he continues to baffle hitters, suddenly the White Sox have quite a weapon in the back of their bullpen.

And that career that once seemed headed for a baseball obituary, will be given a brand new life.

Volstad, Santiago show capability as rotation alternatives, but White Sox still have starting-pitching mystery this weekend

Volstad, Santiago show capability as rotation alternatives, but White Sox still have starting-pitching mystery this weekend

Chris Volstad and Hector Santiago combined for one of the best outings by a White Sox starting pitcher this season.

These weren’t the names anyone expected to fit that description when the season began. But with struggles all around from James Shields, Lucas Giolito, Miguel Gonzalez and Carson Fulmer, here the White Sox sit as they approach the one-month mark of the 2018 campaign.

Reynaldo Lopez has been excellent, no doubt about it, and Fulmer has turned in a couple nice outings, including in Monday’s win over the visiting Seattle Mariners. But against that same M’s lineup Tuesday afternoon, Volstad — who lasted 4.1 innings in a 1-0 loss — became the first White Sox starter this season not to issue a walk.

It was an important outing for Volstad, as well as for Santiago, who followed him up with 3.1 shutout innings of his own. The duo showed they’re both capable of serving as reliable fill-ins in a White Sox rotation that got a hole punched in it Monday, when Gonzalez went to the disabled list.

Shields, Giolito, Lopez, Fulmer. Those guys aren’t going anywhere. But should Gonzalez remain on the DL for an extended period of time, it doesn’t seem as if the White Sox need to be searching for options.

“Volstad and Hector both did a nice job. I thought they gave us plenty of outs, they gave us plenty of opportunity,” manager Rick Renteria said after Tuesday’s game.

But that doesn’t mean the South Siders are out of the starting-pitching woods for the remainder of this week. Shields will go in Wednesday’s finale with the Mariners. Giolito and Lopez are set to pitch in the first two games of a five-game road series against the Kansas City Royals on Thursday and Friday, respectively.

But Saturday presents a mystery, one that doesn’t seem to have an easy answer.

Thanks to that opening-weekend snow-out, there’s a doubleheader Saturday, and while Fulmer is in line to start one of those games, who will start the other? The White Sox will get a 26th man for that day, and that spot is typically given to a spot starter brought up from Triple-A. But given the White Sox current situation on the 40-man roster, there aren’t many options, meaning a player might need to be outrighted in order to make room for a spot starter.

Let’s get this out of the way first: It seems unlikely that Michael Kopech will make his major league debut in a spot start during an April doubleheader in Kansas City. Yes, Kopech has been good in his three starts with Charlotte, sporting a 2.40 ERA with 21 strikeouts. But he’s got just six total starts at the Triple-A level, and the White Sox have made it abundantly clear throughout the last several months that the necessities of the big league team during this rebuilding season and Kopech’s readiness for the majors are independent of one another.

It makes no sense to potentially cut short Kopech’s development at the Triple-A level because the big league rotation needs a spot starter.

The options, however, are limited.

Of the seven players who have started games for the Knights this season, two are on the big league roster right now (Volstad and Chris Beck), one is Kopech and one has a 9.75 ERA (T.J. House). One is on the 40-man roster, Ricardo Pinto, who made his first start at Charlotte on Tuesday. Pinto, though, would be on short rest Saturday.

The other two are Dylan Covey, who turned in a 7.71 ERA with the White Sox last season, and Donn Roach, who has made two career major league starts, most recently giving up four runs in 3.1 innings in a spot start for the Cubs in 2015. Covey and Roach have 2.95 and 1.88 ERAs at Charlotte, respectively. But the White Sox would need to make room on the 40-man roster to bring either up, even just for a day.

While it would be on “short rest,” perhaps the most logical option is just to start Volstad or Santiago on Saturday and start the other on Sunday. Tuesday, Volstad threw 66 pitches and Santiago threw 59 pitches, neither total approaching the qualification of a heavy workload, especially considering both veterans have plenty of starting experience under their belts.

Renteria talked about how well it worked using both guys in tandem Tuesday, but he might have to split them up to staff his rotation this weekend. It would also eliminate the need to remove someone from the 40-man roster. The White Sox could just bring up another bullpen arm as the 26th man, someone like Juan Minaya, who was on the Opening Day roster.

Renteria has already shown willingness to use his pitchers outside of the traditional “every fifth day” strategy. Shields and Fulmer both pitched in back-to-back games just last week. And Fulmer’s turn was moved up when Gonzalez went on the DL, pressing him into his third appearance in six days Monday.

The mystery likely won’t be solved, at least publicly, anytime soon. We’ll likely have to wait a few days to know for sure. Until then, it’s a guessing game.

White Sox Talk Podcast: Trayce Thompson - 'This is home'

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USA TODAY

White Sox Talk Podcast: Trayce Thompson - 'This is home'

Drafted by the White Sox in 2009, Trayce Thompson never wanted to play for another team but the White Sox. 

All that changed in 2015 when he was dealt to the Dodgers in the Todd Frazier trade. Now back with the White Sox, Thompson talks with Chuck Garfien about the trials and tribulations of the last few years, the whirlwind of being on 4 teams in the last 4 weeks, how the White Sox threw him a lifeline bringing him back, how he wants to make the best of this new opportunity and more. 

Take a listen here or in the embedded player below.