Wednesday April 27th, 2011

NEW YORK -- The White Sox entered this week's four-game series at Yankee Stadium having lost 10 of 11 games and with their bullpen in tatters. They had the majors' worst save percentage (14.3), the fewest saves (one) and the most blown saves (six). What they didn't have was a certified closer.

Two games -- most importantly, two wins -- later Chicago has tripled that saves total, more than doubled their saves percentage and, perhaps, solved its most pressing concern. "Finally I found my closer," said White Sox manager Ozzie Guillen late Tuesday night. "Lillibridge."

Supersub Brent Lillibridge may have done the hard part in closing out Tuesday's 3-2 win over the Yankees -- making spectacular catches in rightfield on balls hit by first Alex Rodriguez and then Robinson Cano with the go-ahead runs on base for the final two outs of the ninth inning -- but, officially, the saves went to a man who until two years ago was a failed minor league shortstop, who admits that being a pitcher is "still kind of weird" and who may nonetheless be the closer the White Sox have been searching for all year.

Sergio Santos, a middle reliever since arriving in the majors in 2010, had recorded all of one save before Monday night in his brief career, and that came in such an unusual situation that even Santos himself didn't know when he entered the game that he was eligible for a save.

There was little guesswork on Monday night when Santos nailed down a 2-0 victory by retiring sluggers Mark Teixeira and Rodriguez in the ninth inning of a nationally-televised game at Yankee Stadium.

"That was the first one with me coming in, knowing what the stakes were," Santos said. "I think everything kind of cultivated in that one moment, but that's what I tried to push that away from my mind, that this was no different than me throwing the seventh inning or the eighth inning."

The White Sox surely hope that a strong showing this week against the Yankees can be the springboard to get things going in the right direction. It's been a topsy-turvy April for Chicago, hyped by many to win the American League Central but who still finds itself in the division's cellar, nursing a 10-14 record. In addition to the bullpen's struggles, the offense has been dormant, scoring three or fewer runs in 11 of its last 13 games, during which time it has been shutout three times and averaged only 2.3 runs.

"They're a mess right now," an AL scout said. "[But] they've got too good of a team. They'll turn it around."

The bullpen has drawn the greatest scrutiny after it gave up multiple runs in eight of Chicago's first 12 games, including in each of its first five losses. Compounding matters was that the team had allowed Bobby Jenks, its closer for five years and a two-time All-Star, to leave via free agency after declining numbers the past two seasons.

Without Jenks, however, the bullpen was long on talent but short on experience. The two men entrusted with the game's late-and-close innings before Santos were Matt Thornton, an All-Star set-up man in 2010, who saved eight games last year, doubling his career high, and Chris Sale, who reached the majors less than two months after being drafted last June and had never been to the state of Arizona before spring training this year. Thornton, though, blew his first four save opportunities of the season, and Sale gave up six earned runs in his first 7 1/3 innings pitched, causing Guillen to turn to Santos, who had a 0.00 ERA in his first seven appearances.

His ERA remains pristine after his two scoreless outings this week but even though he has emerged as the White Sox' best reliever and their best option to close, Guillen is reluctant to entrust Santos with the job full-time because he is still such a pitching novice.

"I've got to see more," Guillen said Tuesday. "Don't shoot for the moon. Not yet. His makeup is pretty good, and hopefully we continue to see that."

Santos has now thrown 11 2/3 shutout innings with 14 strikeouts this year, featuring a fastball that averages 95 mph along with two secondary pitches, a slider that the scout described as "swing and miss" to righties and a changeup that's "good enough" to lefties.

"He's got end-of-the-game stuff, and it looks like he's got the right mentality," the scout said. "He's got a huge arm, so he can make mistakes and survive.

"If he keeps progressing he's going to be a good one."

The 27-year-old Santos, a first-round pick by the Diamondbacks in 2002 out of athletic powerhouse Mater Dei High School in Southern California, didn't convert to pitching until the end of spring training in 2009. In seven seasons as a minor league shortstop, he reached Triple-A but never hit more than five home runs and posted a career .248 batting average, so when the White Sox suggested he transition to the mound, Santos accepted the change as his best chance to fulfill his dreams of reaching the big leagues.

After staying behind in Arizona for extended spring training, Santos was sent to low Class-A Kannapolis in May. He threw fewer than 30 minor league innings, posting an 8.16 ERA, across four levels of the minors yet, improbably, he made Chicago's Opening Day major league roster in 2010 and worked his way into a set-up role one month into the season.

"Never did I think that I was going to pitch in the minor leagues from May until August or the beginning of September, and then I'd be in the big leagues as a relief pitcher [the next spring]," he said.

That crash course in pitching, much less relieving, is all to say that he should be excused for being unfamiliar with the official scoring rules for when a save is awarded. That's why when he entered a two-out, bases-loaded jam in the eighth inning with the White Sox leading the Angels 7-2 last July 5, Santos wasn't aware it was a save situation, although it was because the tying run was on deck.

Santos struck out Mike Napoli to end the threat, watched his teammates tack on two more insurance runs in the bottom of the eighth and then retired the side in order in the ninth, completely oblivious to having just earned his first save.

Santos didn't realize what had happened until starter Jake Peavy approached him in the clubhouse and said, "Hey man, congratulations. That's going to be the first of many." Confused, Santos replied, "First of what?"

After learning that he had, in fact, saved his first game, Santos sought to retrieve the ball, the final out conveniently having been an innocuous grounder to second. Santos went over to first baseman Paul Konerko's locker and asked, "Can I get the ball?"

Konerko replied, "Yeah, it's in my glove. Why?"

Santos answered, "I guess that was a save."

If Santos gets his way, maybe he can provide some help of a different sort. The man has 712 career minor-league hits to his name and so many more during amateur play since his childhood that he said he joked to Guillen that he wants to get an at bat in interleague play "to put my past 20 years of training to use."

Then he'd really save the day.

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