KANSAS CITY, Mo. — Even if the White Sox’ bullpen was pitching to the level it expected going into the season, it’s reasonable to assume general manager Rick Hahn would be shopping around for an upgrade.
The bullpen has been good enough to win a non-threatening division, but in the postseason, more lockdown relievers getting the ball to closer Liam Hendriks will be needed.
“It’s not quite to the standards we started with, no,” acknowledged assistant pitching coach Curt Hasler, who oversees the pen. “But, listen, there are two more months left, and [the bullpen is] led by Liam and [Michael] Kopech and Aaron Bummer, who will be there. ... Ryan Burr is stepping in doing a better job. And Codi [Heuer] continues to work and get better. I have no hesitation saying this is a good group.”
Perhaps, but a reinforcement or perhaps two beneath Hendriks and Kopech seem necessary, even though Hendriks — allowing a game-tying homer to Salvador Perez in the ninth inning of a 3-2 loss in 10 innings to the Royals on Wednesday notwithstanding — is doing what the Sox paid him $54 million for four seasons to do. And Kopech, with outings like Tuesday’s when he struck out the first three batters in the Royals’ lineup in the eighth inning followed by a perfect eighth on Wednesday, is pitching like a premier setup man.
Kopech pitched in consecutive games for the first time in his career.
“I used the potential analogy of Adam Wainwright in ’06,” manager Tony La Russa said of Kopech, “and that’s exactly what he’s become. He’s not just a starter-in-training; he’s gotten to where he is one of our prime-time guys with the lead.”
The Royals walked off the Sox in the 10th inning against Burr, who served up an RBI single with two outs to Michael Taylor on an 0-2 pitch after the Sox failed to move their free runner past second base. Royals righty Scott Barlow struck out Yoan Moncada and defensive replacement Billy Hamilton and got pinch hitter Brian Goodwin after Leury Garcia walked.
After starter Lucas Giolito pitched six-plus strong innings, Bummer was brought into a tough spot with no outs and delivered heroically, leaving Jorge Soler stranded at third by striking out Andrew Benintendi and pinch hitter Hanser Alberto and getting Hunter Dozier to ground out to shortstop Tim Anderson.
“A miracle escape,” La Russa said.
Burr almost escaped in the 10th. Anderson threw to catcher Seby Zavala on Dozier’s ground ball to stop Benintendi from scoring — Zavala ran him back and needed a challenge to prove he tagged him on the ground before Benintendi sprinted home without a throw. The replay delayed the Royals’ celebration, but Dozier moved up into scoring position and set the stage for Taylor.
There are still strides to be made for the pen. Bummer, Heuer, Burr and Garrett Crochet haven’t hit extended grooves of consistency. And Evan Marshall is injured and just starting to play catch.
“In the end, they’ll be there a heck of a lot more often than they won’t be,” Hasler said.
Giolito (3.67 ERA) didn’t allow a hit until Ryan O’Hearn’s two-out roller in front of the mound in the fifth, Giolito’s slip on his first step off the mound costing him an out. He gave up three doubles, two of them probably playable. Giolito struck out seven, walked one and threw 80 pitches on a sweltering night.
“Lucas was outstanding,” La Russa said. “It’s so irritating for him to get a no-decision. He deserved a win.”
The Sox got two runs in the fifth against lefty Kris Bubic on Danny Mendick’s RBI single that scored Andrew Vaughn from second. Mendick stayed in a rundown long enough to allow Garcia to score from third on the same play.
“It just sucks because those guys were out there in this heat for 10 innings, grinding it out, and I didn’t get my job done,” Hendriks said.