White Sox

With fresh outlook and arm, White Sox minor leaguer tackles comeback

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With fresh outlook and arm, White Sox minor leaguer tackles comeback

He disappeared before ever throwing a pitch, reappeared four years later out of the blue and is back firing 99 mile per hour fastballs.

Now, thanks to a tryout and a second chance, White Sox minor league right-hander Brett Bruening has an outside shot at a major league career.

Nearly five years after the White Sox drafted him out of Grayson County College, Bruening, 26, has just begun his first full professional season. The Single-A Kannapolis pitcher -- who earned a save with a scoreless inning Wednesday night --- believes he’s in the right place to resume his career after graduating college and handling off the field issues that forced him into early retirement.

Having retained him on the restricted player list since 2010, the White Sox are eager to see what they have in the 6-foot-8, 240-pounder.

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“We didn’t know what we were going to see once we got him back,” White Sox farm director Nick Capra said. “When we first did see him, we kind of stepped back and said 'Wow.' 

“He's not only opened our eyes, but some scouts along the way. Any time you light up the radar gun like that you're going to draw attention to yourself.”

As of last spring, the White Sox hadn’t heard from Bruening since he unexpectedly retired in the summer of 2010. Drafted for a third year in a row -- he was selected by St. Louis in 2008 and the New York Yankees in 2009 -- Bruening passed on attending Texas Tech to sign with the White Sox, who took him in the 42nd round. But before he ever pitched for the organization’s rookie ball team at Great Falls, Mont., Bruening opted out.

Not only did he want to resume his education, Bruening dealt with anxiety and other issues off the field. He knows he wasn’t ready to be in baseball and though he regretted the decision, Bruening retired.

“I just wasn't mentally prepared for the grind of the every day being in the minors,” Bruening said. “Deep down inside I never stopped loving the game, but also I wasn't prepared to succeed. I think I just needed to step away. I had some things outside of baseball that I wanted to improve upon and needed to go to take care of those first and foremost.”

An amateur scout at the time, Keith Staab remembers well the “dreadful call” he received from now-assistant general manager Buddy Bell when Bruening retired. 

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“Before you knew it, he’s on a playing flying home,” said Staab, now a pro scout. “We couldn’t get a hold of him for four or five days.”

Bruening isn’t embarrassed by his situation. And upon graduating in May 2013 (he majored in communications at Texas A&M-Corpus Christi), he felt better prepared for baseball.

“It was kind of just the culmination of a lot of things that all boiled into one life-changing decision,” Bruening said. “I think everything happens for a reason and I came back a lot better mentally and just in a much better place to accomplish what I wanted to accomplish.”

But before he got the chance, Bruening had to figure out his options. He rediscovered the drive to pitch and thought he was still in good enough shape to do it. He also knew now was the time before he found another job.

In March 2014, his agent emailed Staab to say Bruening had started throwing again and hoped to try out and find out his status (the White Sox still had him on the restricted list).

Staab agreed to a 30-pitch workout in the last week of March but didn’t know what to expect since Bruening hadn’t pitched for four years.

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“The first pitch out of his hand was 94,” Staab said. “The sliders were out of whack, but they were 84 to 86 and they had the right tilt and dip to them.”

Bruening recalls he felt good, but he was nervous. He had only been throwing for two weeks.

“When Staab was flashing numbers out when I was throwing my pen, he was holding up three and four and I was like, 'Oh my gosh, I'm throwing 84 miles an hour,' ” Bruening said. “After the bullpen he was like, 'No, that was 93, 92.' I was freaking out.”

Though the longtime scout thought the White Sox would have a similar reaction, he first needed to be convinced Bruening was for real. Bruening had left the Sox on bad terms and Staab wanted to make sure of the pitcher’s intentions before he vouched for him to the front office.

The two talked for 30 minutes and Staab was convinced.

“It was a gut feel telling me this guy isn’t fooling around this time,” Staab said. “I saw a tear forming in his eye. I believe in second chances.”

By June, Bruening was in Kannapolis. He pitched three innings there and another three in the Arizona Rookie League in August.

Without a full offseason program, Bruening didn’t have much arm strength and the White Sox didn’t want to push him. But he did enough to earn an invite to spring training and caught the attention of rival scouts.

[SHOP: Gear up, White Sox fans]

“It’s a special arm,” said another AL scout. “It’s not about the slider or his stuff, it’s about his brain after what he’s been through.”

Staab and Bruening believe he’s ready for anything. Staab thinks having a college education has freed Bruening of any worries and he’s able to solely focus on baseball.

Bruening has already proven his commitment several times, first by arriving a month early for minor league camp to work on conditioning and a throwing program. Upon his arrival, Staab requested Bruening apologize to Bell and Capra and thank them for his second chance. Bruening immediately did and called Staab 30 minutes after he arrived in Glendale, Ariz. to let him know.

Now Bruening’s focus is fastball command and further development of his slider. Because he’ll turn 27 in December, he has no ambition of becoming anything other than a reliever.

He doesn’t have enough time to develop into a starter. But four years away from pitching has left Bruening with a fresh arm that continues to pump fastballs in the high 90s.

“After I got done with school I did what I said what I was going to do,” Bruening said. “In my mind I was much better and knew I could handle coming back and living the lifestyle that we live out here. There's just something inside of you when you know you're prepared to do something.”

James Shields is having a stellar May and making comeback wins possible for the White Sox

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USA TODAY

James Shields is having a stellar May and making comeback wins possible for the White Sox

If you haven’t checked in with what James Shields is doing in a while, your opinion of the veteran pitcher’s performance might need some updating.

Shields didn’t exactly win the confidence of White Sox fans during his first two seasons on the South Side. After arriving in a midseason trade with the San Diego Padres in 2016, he posted a 6.77 ERA in 22 starts, during which he allowed 31 home runs. He followed that up with a 5.23 ERA and 27 home runs allowed in 2017.

And the 2018 season didn’t start out great, either, with a 6.17 ERA over his first five outings.

But the month of May has brought a dramatic turn in the vet’s production. In five May starts, he’s got a 3.27 ERA in five starts, all of which have seen him go at least six innings (he’s got six straight outings of at least six innings, dating back to his last start in April).

And his two most recent starts have probably been his two best ones of the season. After allowing just one run on three hits in 7.1 innings last Thursday against the Texas Rangers, he gave up just two runs on five hits Tuesday night against the Baltimore Orioles.

The White Sox, by the way, won both of those games in comeback fashion. They scored four runs in the eighth against Texas and three in the eighth against Baltimore for a pair of “Ricky’s boys don’t quit” victories made possible by Shields’ great work on the mound.

“That’s what it’s all about,” he said after Tuesday’s game. “It’s our job as starters to keep us in the game as long as we possibly can, no matter how we are hitting in a game. At the end of the game, you can always score one or two runs and possibly win a ballgame like we did tonight.”

The White Sox offense was indeed having trouble much of Tuesday’s game, kept off the scoreboard by Orioles starter Kevin Gausman. Particularly upsetting for White Sox Twitter was the sixth inning, when the South Siders put two runners in scoring position with nobody out and then struck out three straight times to end the inning.

But Shields went out and pitched a shut-down seventh, keeping the score at 2-0. Bruce Rondon did much the same thing in the eighth, and the offense finally sparked to life in the bottom of the inning when coincidentally presented with a similar situation to the one in the sixth. This time, though, the inning stayed alive and resulted in scoring, with Welington Castillo, Yoan Moncada and Yolmer Sanchez driving in the three runs.

“I’m out there doing my job,” Shields said. “My job is to try to keep us in the game. And we had some good starters against us that have been throwing well. If I can keep them close, we are going to get some wins and get some wins throughout the rest of the year like that. That’s the name of the game.”

Shields’ value in this rebuilding effort has been discussed often. His veteran presence is of great value in the clubhouse, particularly when it comes to mentoring young pitchers like Lucas Giolito and Reynaldo Lopez, among others. Shields can act as an example of how to go about one’s business regardless of the outcomes of his starts. But when he can lead by example with strong outings, that’s even more valuable.

“I’m trying to eat as many innings as possible,” he said. “We kind of gave our bullpen — we taxed them a little bit the first month of the season. We are kind of getting back on track. Our goal as a starting staff is to go as deep as possible, and in order to do that, you’ve got to throw strikes and get ahead of hitters.

“Not too many playoff teams, a starting staff goes five and dive every single game. My whole career I’ve always wanted to go as deep as possible. I wanted to take the ball all the way to the end of the game. And we’ve done a pretty good job of it of late.”

It’s a long time between now and the trade deadline, and consistency has at times escaped even the brightest spots on this rebuilding White Sox roster. But Shields has strung together a nice bunch of starts here of late, and if that kind of performance can continue, the White Sox front office might find that it has a potential trade piece on its hands. That, too, is of value to this rebuild.

Until that possibility occurs, though, the team will take more solid outings that give these young players an opportunity to learn how to come back and learn how to win.

Ozzie Guillen offers his solution to PED use in baseball

Ozzie Guillen offers his solution to PED use in baseball

Ozzie Guillen is not one to shy away from having a strong opinion about something.

On NBC Sports Chicago’s Baseball Night in Chicago show on Tuesday, Guillen gave his view on how Major League Baseball can stop the usage of performance-enhancing drugs.

“Major League Baseball, you want to cut this thing down?” Guillen said on the show. “You cancel the contract to this kid. Then you’re going to see that. You get caught one time, you’re banned from baseball, then you’re going to stop with that. Because if you’re going to make $200 million and lose $11 million? I’m going to do it.”

Guillen is going off the idea that a player who used PEDs to get a big contract only loses part of it when he eventually gets caught and suspended. Canceling the rest of a contract takes away some of the financial incentive to use PEDs.

“If you get caught when you are young and you try to survive in the game, well, I don’t agree with them, but you can survive in this game that way,” Guillen said. “You know how hard it is right now. How Major League Baseball is on the top of this thing, day in and day out. They’re not going to play around with this thing.”

Marlon Byrd, who was twice suspended for PED use, was also on the show and talked about his PED suspensions.