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White Sox reliever Zach Putnam: Pain-free and pen key

Updated: June 10, 2014 6:45AM



Zach Putnam knows about first impressions. He has mastered the bad, and he’s working on perfecting a good one right now. There seems to be no in between for the 26-year-old University of Michigan product.

“First impressions are everything, particularly with a new club,’’ said the White Sox right-hander, who has had a calming effect on the bullpen and has made it look easy since getting called up from Class AAA Charlotte on April 17 by posting a 1.35 ERA in seven relief appearances.

Before this, Putnam had a way of making people say, “What’s with the new guy?” As a September call-up for the Cleveland Indians in 2011, the first batter he faced in his major-league debut, Adrian Beltre, homered to left field. The second batter, David Murphy, doubled to deep left-center. The third, Mike Napoli, singled to score Murphy.

Welcome to the majors.

Putnam finished out the month, making eight appearances and posting a 6.14 ERA. After being traded to the Colorado Rockies the following January, he spent almost the entire 2012 season in Class AAA. The Cubs signed him the following Christmas Day, and after throwing three pitches and getting an out in a game against the Sox on May 30, he took the ball for one inning against the Arizona Diamondbacks two days later. He took a beating, facing nine batters in one inning and giving up six hits.

Another bad first impression.

“I had a couple of rough outings when I got called up,’’ Putnam said Wednesday, a day after pitching two perfect innings at Wrigley Field and getting the win in relief against the Cubs.

“After having a good spring and continuing at Triple-A and having some good momentum going right now, I’m just trying to not get too high or too low about anything.’’

The difference for Putnam now is having had bone spurs removed from his elbow last August. He’s pitching pain-free for the first time in a long time, and his split-finger pitch has been nothing short of outstanding.

“The nice thing about it is when it’s not as sharp as I want it to be, it’s always going to be down, so I’m not going to get hurt on it,’’ he said.

“More than anything, I’m throwing strikes. I don’t want to say it’s easy, but it helps for a ground-ball guy like myself to have infielders like we have. Keep the ball down, let them do the work. It makes throwing strikes less of a challenge — you’re a little less gun-shy.’’

Putnam’s first outing with the Sox was, of all places, at Texas, but this one was better. He allowed a run, three hits and no walks in 21/3 innings. He has retired 19 of the last 20 batters he has faced and feels rejuvenated. His presence has brought life to a bullpen that was, in part because of injuries and in part because of walks, dying during the first three weeks.

“Getting healthy and being able to throw with where my arm is at, it’s nice to say I’ve been 100 percent healthy,’’ he said. “Then getting an opportunity and running with it.

“I’ve had rough outings when I’ve gotten called up. This year, I wondered if everything would come back to where it was stuff-wise, and it’s been really good.’’

Going to the Sox after pitching for the Cubs gives Putnam that certain perspective on the rivalry. He liked being a Cub, but he likes where he’s at — being healthy and getting people out — as a pitcher with the Sox.

“Chicago is a great city,’’ said Putnam, who grew up near Ann Arbor. “I was happy there; I’m happy here. It’s different on the North Side with all the day games, and the party-in-the-stands atmosphere is different. But I’m happy with the White Sox. I’m thankful for the opportunity they’ve given me.’’

Email: dvanschouwen@suntimes.com

Twitter: @CST_soxvan



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