The White Sox bullpen took its seventh loss of the season Saturday in Boston.
If not for Lance Lynn giving up a two-run homer to José Ramírez on Thursday afternoon, the relief corps would be responsible for every single defeat on the White Sox 6-8 tally to start the season.
There are certainly some misleading elements to the suggestion that the 'pen has been the White Sox biggest trouble spot. Defensive miscues and an unreliable offense have contributed just as much, if not more, to losses than bullpen blow-ups. But the late-inning letdowns have unavoidably piled up in the early going.
After the latest, though, Tony La Russa is sticking to a line he probably didn't think he'd have to repeat too often when the White Sox left spring training: His faith in the bullpen remains high.
"I have not changed my mind at all about the bullpen," he said. "I just think when you get beat, you get beat as a team. ... We missed a couple of opportunities to add points there, and we didn't have a good defensive game.
"The bullpen is one of the strengths of our club, there's no doubt in my mind."
It's surprising that La Russa has had to reiterate that belief so often considering how dominant it seemed this bullpen could be in 2021. Adding All-Star closer Liam Hendriks to an already existing group of really good late-inning arms figured to be a recipe for relief excellence, and the bullpen was talking up its sky-high goals during the spring, commenting on hoped for "elite" status and planning a perfect record with a late lead.
It hasn't played out that way through the season's first few weeks, and the White Sox late-inning woes returned Saturday.
The Red Sox broke a 2-all tie in the sixth by stringing back-to-back hits together against Evan Marshall. After the White Sox offense promptly re-knotted the score, Codi Heuer was electric, punching out the middle of the Red Sox order in the seventh. But the third pitch he threw in the eighth was smacked out for a go-ahead homer, and things only got worse from there.
Heuer gave up two more hits before being swapped out for José Ruiz with two outs, who walked the first two hitters he faced, the second bringing in a run with the bases loaded. A bloop double that bounced into the seats followed, and the game was broken open.
La Russa took some Twitter heat for calling on Ruiz, the lone White Sox reliever who came into the season without expectations of dominance, in such a critical situation. But the right-hander had actually been terrific in his first four appearances of the season, retiring all but one batter across 4.1 innings.
Saturday, that strong start to the season for Ruiz came to an abrupt end.
But despite another late-inning letdown, the White Sox aren't ready to start fretting that their hyper talented relief corps has morphed from a preseason strength into an in-season concern.
"We haven't really gotten outplayed by teams," White Sox catcher Zack Collins said. "A couple bad-luck breaks here and there: broken-bat hits, bad calls by the umpire, weird things happening to us. But the good thing is we all know our bullpen's going to be unstoppable at some point in the season. We've got a lot of live arms in there, and they'll be fine."
The White Sox have taken the Bob Marley approach to a bumpy start to a season with championship-level expectations, insisting that no one should worry about a thing because every little thing is going to be all right.
Until the season gets deeper, until the sample size grows larger, they're not wrong to feel that way. While there have undoubtedly been repeated issues over the first 14 games — defensive struggles, a hit-or-miss offense that frequently fails to cash in on scoring chances and these late-game letdowns with relief pitchers on the mound — this sort of fan angst comes with the territory of not just high expectations but baseball, in general.
While a four-run eighth for Boston told the story Saturday, it could have been a much different tale had Fenway Park's wacky dimensions not gotten in the way of Yoán Moncada's 407-foot bases-loaded flyout to center field in the second, a grand slam in most any other ballpark.
"It's baseball," Collins said. "It's going to be a roller coaster every year, no matter how good you are. We're going to have ups, we're going to have downs. It just so happens that ours happens to be in the first three weeks of the season.
"Things will jell together, we'll find our way in the winning column pretty soon."