White Sox reliever Aaron Bummer needed just one pitch to Reds leadoff hitter Jonathan India to finish off the inning. His fist pitch of the at-bat, a sinker, clipped the bottom edge of the strike zone and induced a double-play groundout.
Just like that, Bummer extended his scoreless streak to 12 games on Tuesday. The three hits he allowed in that span were all ground balls.
“Put a simply, throwing strikes,” Bummer said of what’s clicked for him, in a conversation with NBC Sports Chicago this week.
More on the nuances of his adjustment later. But Bummer’s command issues in the first half of the season meant that his name didn’t come up as fans and media members marveled over the White Sox bullpen’s potential after the trade deadline.
Deadline acquisitions Craig Kimbrel and Ryan Tepera, paired with All-Star closer Liam Hendriks and lefty Garrett Crochet, drummed up hype over the back end of the bullpen – and rightfully so. The bullpen was highly touted even before adding a likely hall of fame closer.
The ubertalented group, however, hasn’t always met those high expectations in the past couple months, with Kimbrel in particular addressing mechanical slippage after a dominant first half with the Cubs. Tepera has been out for a little over two weeks with a cut on the index finger of his throwing hand.
Bummer’s turnaround provided a counterbalance as the playoffs approached.
“We saw today the depth,” White Sox manager Tony La Russa said of his bullpen earlier this week.
For Bummer, his season’s tipping point came in late July at Milwaukee, when he gave up a single and two walks to start the seventh inning of a one-run game.
Free passes had become a theme for Bummer by then. He’d issued 20 walks in his first 35 games of the season. The Brewers ended up blowing out the White Sox, 7-1, starting a rally against Bummer, who was charged three runs in 2/3 of an inning.
“The first four months of the season, the walks were an atrocity,” Bummer said. “They were my killer.”
So, he sat down with pitching coach Ethan Katz and bullpen coach Curt Hasler to pick apart his mechanics and lay out a plan for the rest of the season.
The focus was getting Bummer to drive straight down the mound, using his glutes and pushing through his back heel instead of his toe.
“I am a very rotational pitcher,” Bummer said. “And some of the things I do are unorthodox, but still the key is being able to be directional and be in a straight line, and then let everything else kind of fall into place after that.”
Since making that adjustment, Bummer has been part of some of the White Sox bullpen’s best showings. In a 10-7 victory at Kansas City earlier this month, Kimbrel, Bummer and Hendriks combined to throw three scoreless innings against a red-hot Royals offense that totaled 20 runs in the three-game series.
Then, in the White Sox’ 1-0 victory Cleveland last weekend, Bummer threw a four-batter seventh inning to set the stage for Kimbrel and Hendriks to set down the next six batters in order.
"The bullpen, to get those outs like they did so efficiently, just shows their potential," White Sox manager Tony La Russa said at the time. "If we can get the lead going into the last third of the game, that's a real asset, what we've got out there."
Despite some wavering earlier in the year, the White Sox bullpen looks formidable heading into the postseason. Reynaldo López and Michael Kopech are available to throw multiple innings if a starter goes short. Then, the likes of Bummer and Crochet (and Tepera if he’s healthy) set up for Kimbrel and Hendriks.
“Hopefully over the next week and then leading into the playoffs, everyone continues to throw the ball extremely well,” Bummer said. “And hopefully Tony has too many decisions to make of who he wants to go to. That's the way that's the way that we want to be as a bullpen, we all want to be firing on all cylinders.”