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Sox 'pen, on display vs. Cubs, more than 'Ponytail Gang'

/ by Vinnie Duber
Presented By Nationwide Insurance Agent Jeff Vukovich
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Either Aaron Bummer is going to need to grow his hair out in a hurry, or "The Ponytail Gang" is going to need a name change.

Chicago White Sox closer Liam Hendriks dubbed the new trio of long-haired relievers at the back end of the South Side bullpen "The Ponytail Gang" upon the arrival of fellow All-Star closer Craig Kimbrel in a splashy deadline deal with the Crosstown-rival Chicago Cubs.

But with Bummer coming on after a slow start, that back-end group is growing in number, showing how much of a force the White Sox relief corps could be come October.

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"There's serious talent that comes out there," White Sox manager Tony La Russa said Saturday.

La Russa got to deploy the back end of his bullpen in pretty close to dream fashion Saturday, getting dream results, too, as the White Sox grabbed a second straight win over the Cubs, 4-0, at Wrigley Field.

After Carlos Rodón walked the leadoff man in the bottom of the sixth, he was done after five otherwise phenomenal, strikeout-filled  shutout innings. La Russa called on Michael Kopech, who pitched around a couple base runners to keep the Cubs at zero in a two-run game. Bummer followed with a stellar seventh, featuring nothing more than an infield single. Kimbrel came on in the eighth and went 1-2-3 a day after getting roughed up by his former club.

 

Only back-to-back homers from César Hernández and José Abreu in the eighth prevented Hendriks from making a second consecutive appearance. He blew away the Cubs the day prior, preserving a tie by striking out four of the five hitters he faced in the eighth and ninth innings.

This is the way the White Sox new-look bullpen is supposed to function.

Kimbrel's bad day Friday can be easily chalked up as an anomaly considering the microscopic 0.47 ERA he came into the weekend with. And Ryan Tepera, another reliever acquired from the Cubs ahead of the deadline, is making the homer he surrendered in his first outing in a White Sox uniform a fading memory with four scoreless appearances since, including the ninth inning Saturday.

"The Ponytail Gang" makes for a good T-shirt, sure. But the group is more than just Kimbrel, Hendriks and Kopech.

"There's a lot of talent and a lot of guys that can get the job done," Kimbrel said on his first day with the White Sox a week ago. "I see a lot of wins in this team's future for the rest of the year. There's going to be a lot of guys needed to lock games down and close games out, and I think every single one of us is going to be a part of that."

There could be no more important figure outside the long-haired triumvirate than Bummer, who looked excellent Saturday and has looked excellent for a while now.

His shaky start to the season was the result of his typical bunches of grounders finding holes in the White Sox infield. That, accompanied by an unusual combination of walks and wayward pitches in numerous outings, made for a less effective Bummer than in years past, casting an unpleasant glare on the lefty's preseason proclamation that the South Side relief corps was aiming for a perfect record with late leads.

But Bummer's back to looking like the guy who figured to be a dominant setup man for Hendriks, with six straight scoreless outings.

"When I said (Bummer was having) bad luck, it's because they were not really making hard contact. And he doesn't give up hard contact very often. So sometimes those balls find holes," La Russa said. "But now, he's got the fastball to both sides of the plate, and he's got that breaking ball, and then the put-away one.

"He's a handful, and he can pitch against right- and left-(handed hitters). So this is the talent that you guys know was there. He's squaring up to the situation and taking the deep breaths and getting outs. He'll continue to improve and grow, and it'll be fun to watch."

Of course, the focus will stay on the guy who pushed Bummer into a slightly different role, Kimbrel taking over as the White Sox eighth-inning man, or rather teaming with Hendriks to cover the eighth and ninth in close games.

 

After giving up four hits in a single outing for just the second time in his career Friday, Kimbrel was greeted with a long fly ball Saturday but closed with a couple strikeouts to polish off a bounce-back effort that should quell all fears that he'd be a different-looking arm on the South Side than he was on the North Side this season.

"The career he's had? He's probably saved 90 percent, and 10 percent get away. He's a really good competitor," La Russa said. "When he lets his team down, he comes back. There isn't anything about this guy that's ever going to give in or give up. He was upset, and fortunately, he had a big smile because we won the game."

Indeed, it was another win, securing a series victory for the White Sox for just the third time in seven tries since the start of the second half.

Though the White Sox' bats delivered a couple long balls and more than three runs Saturday, the game was won by dominant pitching. Excellent starting pitching has been the White Sox' greatest success in 2021, and Rodón kept his name in the thick of the Cy Young race with his effort Saturday.

A dominant bullpen joining that starting pitching? That would be an eye-popping combination for the White Sox as they continue to chase a championship, an attribute that could make them downright unhittable come playoff time.

"It's pretty nice when you can go to Kimbrel and then Liam, or whatever it may be," Rodón said. "You know it’s going to be a zero."

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