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White Sox must find a consistent closer


How Sergio Santos, Matt Thornton and
Chris Sale stack up as White Sox relievers:


Santos 12 14 3.41 312/3 20 20 37

Thornton 2 6 4.63 231/3 28 12 21

Sale 2 3 4.62 251/3 26 14 24

Updated: September 21, 2011 12:34AM

Ah, the mind of a closer. The dark, lonely, sometimes
bizarre mind of a closer. Each one different, but in many ways the twisted same.

The goal is to get three outs and get home. But that path home is where it gets interesting.

For Sergio Santos, it’s a series of lies. He wants the ninth inning to feel no different than the fourth, seventh or eighth. So as he warms up in the bullpen after the phone call is made, he has a conversation with himself.

‘‘For everyone [else], it’s like, ‘Here we go, it’s the ninth inning,’ ’’ Santos said. ‘‘But for me, it has to be the same approach as the seventh inning. I have to tell myself that. .  .  . Whether it’s the seventh inning, eighth inning, first inning, I’m coming in, throwing, getting my three outs and we’re done. I’ll let the media [and] the fans have the excitement that this is the ninth.’’

So does it work? Santos laughed.

‘‘Well, you have to fool yourself into believing that,’’ he said.

That’s where things get interesting because sometimes the lie doesn’t take. That has been the disturbing trend lately.

Even though Santos earned his 12th save Sunday, it was more tightrope than ‘‘three outs and we’re done.’’ He allowed an RBI single to Jemile Weeks with two outs to turn a 5-3 lead into a one-run nail-biter, then needed a generous out call from umpire Brian O’Nora on a play at first base to end the game.

In his last 10 appearances, Santos has allowed 12 earned runs in 112/3 innings for a 9.26 ERA. Meet the latest Sox pitcher to wear the ‘‘closer’’ title, Sox fans. And try sleeping at night.

‘‘You have so much adrenaline, you want to do so well,’’ Santos, who only has been pitching for three years, said of his on-the-job-training. ‘‘The best thing for you to do is to step back and do less. Let whatever you do take over.

‘‘You start [saying to yourself]: ‘I’m going to try and make my slider nasty. I’m going to paint the corners.’ No. It’s a learning experience, and I feel like I have that in the memory bank now. .  .  . If I’m starting to lose it, step back, relax and let them put the ball in play.’’

Ask the Sox whom their closer is these days, and they will tell you they have four. Manager Ozzie Guillen will say Santos first because he still is getting most of the chances there. But then he’ll rattle off Jesse Crain, Matt Thornton and even Chris Sale.

Four closers. That means you really don’t have one — at least not one you know you can ride from now until September. And show me a team that enters September with a closer-by-committee, and I’ll show you a team that can make tee times for early October.

‘‘You look at most good teams and teams in the playoffs, you don’t see teams with closers-by-committee,’’ catcher A.J. Pierzynski said. ‘‘It’s important to find one guy and stick with him.’’

When they broke spring camp, the Sox thought they had that guy in Thornton. But four consecutive blown saves out of the gate cost him his job as the closer and, outside the Sox’ clubhouse, his reputation.

See, when you fail in the seventh inning, it’s a bad outing. When you fail in the ninth, it’s because you can’t hack it and don’t have the mental makeup to close.

That’s what we do to athletes these days: We put them in a box. Thornton’s box was labeled ‘‘fragile.’’

‘‘What happened in that time was it just wasn’t going my way; it wasn’t working out for me,’’ Thornton said. ‘‘Plus, Sergio was the hottest reliever in all of baseball.

‘‘But if people don’t think I can close .  .  . it’s not something that bothers me at all that people want to think that. You put me in the game for the ninth inning, I feel like I’m going to get the job done.’’

Thornton has posted a 2.31 ERA in his last 12 appearances. But can he do the job in the ninth if he gets the closer’s job back?

‘‘Absolutely,’’ he said. ‘‘There is no fear.’’

Not a doubt in his mind.

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