After August saw White Sox rookie reliever Gregory Santos close out wins with multi-inning efforts three times, and fail trying to pull off a fourth, September might see his team pump the brakes.
“He’s exceeded everything he’s ever done in the game in one season,” manager Pedro Grifol said Saturday. “We have to now protect him. He’s available, but he’s only going to be available in certain situations to make sure that he finishes strong and gets the experience that he needs in that eighth and ninth.”
Statistically, August looks like the worst month of a season where the 24-year-old Santos has established as a high-leverage relief arm going forward, with a 3.26 ERA and sparklingly low 5.3 percent walk rate. But that’s due to two blowup outings where the Sox ramped up the difficulty level, after a deadline sell-off excavated their bullpen.
The Christopher Morel walk-off homer came as Santos was attempting a save a night after a five-out effort against the same Cubs team. A blown save a week later came as Santos was trying to record six outs — after entering the eighth with a runner on — to stop a Mariners lineup that had won eight in a row.
“We asked to do that when we had an opportunity to win games because we think that highly of him,” pitching coach Ethan Katz said. “When he’s had one-inning spurts, he’s done a great job. Not to say he’s done a poor job with the other outings, just that it’s really hard. It’s a big ask.”
Even with starting experience in the early minors, Santos’ 60 2/3 innings through August already represent a professional career-high. It also comes while throwing triple-digit sinkers that the right-hander admits he’s been getting the feel for commanding the movement of over the course of the season.
But Santos would describe himself as a willing participant, loving both the adrenaline of closing and the responsibility of knowing that if he does his job, everyone goes home with a victory.
“If you ask him, he’s available everyday,” Grifol said.
“If my arm is feeling good, I’m good to pitch no matter what,” Santos said via interpreter. “It’s a trust relationship and we have good communication.”
The communication, Santos says, allows for nuance and for him to specify when he’s only up for a single-inning outing. Always being ready to pitch means it’s taken seriously on the rare occasion he says he needs rest. And in his view, maintaining a consistent physical routine is a breeze when you’re not moving between levels, as Santos had the last two seasons with the Giants.
As tumultuous as this season has been for the White Sox in terms of results, turnover and clubhouse culture, Santos is as much at ease as ever as one of the most experienced of a litany of rookies in the Sox bullpen.
“It’s not as much about veterans and rookies, because the key is just to keep learning,” Santos said via interpreter. “There are things that the rookies are doing that I can learn from them. There are things that the veterans are doing that you can learn from them too. Now we can feel more comfortable talking to each other. Sometimes when you try to talk with a veteran, you can feel uncomfortable or insecure, because you don’t know what the answer is going to be or how he’s going to react. Now it’s much better because we can talk to each other.”
And when the Sox talk about Santos, it’s as someone who has already proven himself as an option for stressful late-inning moments for years to come. He’s not part of the crop of young players trying to earn a role for next season. But if Santos is called upon for a save, he won’t be carrying any moments from August with him.
“They key for me is I don’t think about that,” Santos said. “The only thought on my mind is ‘Let’s get the out.’”