Tick, Tick, Tick

It's always there, that strip at the top of the TV screen, providing all the information that you really need. The score, the count, the outs, the runners, and the ticking pitch count on its relentless journey telling us just how much longer the pitcher of the day will survive before the bullpen enters the fray.

Since 100 pitches signals the bewitching hour for the starter, you can't help but be encouraged if, for instance, a guy like Reynaldo Lopez requires but 14 pitches to complete the first inning like he did Sunday in the White Sox eventual 4-3 loss to the Tigers. The longer it takes for the entry of fellows such as Jose Ruiz, the better chance there is for success.

Consider that a starting major league pitcher averages about 5⅓ innings of employment in order to reach triple digits in pitches, earning him the next four days off. Somehow, some way, the parade of hurlers next in line are vested with the responsibility of getting the final 11 outs with little or no damage. In the case of the present-day White Sox, this is a challenge of immense magnitude.

If the starter uses an average of 15 pitches per inning, things can turn out splendidly since we now would be at the end of seventh inning with an acceptable 105 pitches. Even the White Sox have two fairly dependable relievers in Kelvin Herrera and Alex Colome to handle the final two stanzas.

Last season when the boys dropped 100 games, Lopez pitched at least seven innings in 17 of his 32 starts. The Sox won 11 of those contests. So far this season in five outings, Lopez hasn't lasted more than six innings, and the ballclub is 2-3.

In addition, if Lopez can reasonably sustain himself in the first three innings, the prospects are bright. Last year, his ERA for innings 1-3 was 4.52 including a horrid 5.91 mark in the first inning, but it dropped to 3.19 over the next three frames. There's also this theory that the third time through the batting order, the hitters know what to expect from a starting pitcher, hence he loses his effectiveness. But not in Lopez's case; batters hit just .176 against him in 2018 the third time through the order.

Through three innings on Sunday, Lopez had thrown just 41 pitches. He trailed 1-0, but that graphic - that tick, tick, tick at the top of the screen - communicated the good news. Lopez was destined to give his mates a chance to win the game.

However, his pals didn't exactly help out. Behind 2-0 in the sixth, Leury Garcia, a decent enough player but clearly inept in centerfield, misjudged a pop fly that fell off his glove for a two-base error leading to an unearned run, and, lest we be remiss, cost Lopez a few more pitches to retire the side and close out his work for the day. He threw 105 pitches while yielding seven hits, four for extra bases. What saved him was the fact that he walked no one.

The 100-pitch threshold has become more and more difficult to cover six or seven innings for a couple of reasons. One is that last season the number of foul balls, which has risen 12 percent in the last 20 years, was greater than balls in play.

You see those adults in their 60s and 70s who bring their gloves to the ballpark? Don't smirk. Some of them catch more balls than the guys on the field. In a place like Guaranteed Rate Field with lots of room to roam in the seats, gathering a foul ball is a reasonable proposition.

Last season also for the first time there were more strikeouts than hits in major league games, and strikeouts obviously take at least three pitches in the best of circumstances. Lopez whiffed eight batters on Sunday, but it took him 44 pitches to do it.

Theoretically the pitch limits are in place to minimize the risk of injury and to cut down on the wear-and-tear on starting pitchers so that there's something left in the tank for the end of the 162-game grind. Nevertheless, ulnar collateral ligaments snap as often shoelaces. Torn rotator cuffs are as common as hang nails. Pitchers are bigger, stronger and more muscular, and those stringy tendons and fragile tissues apparently can't handle the stress.

Yet there are people like Justin Verlander, who threw more than 100 pitches in a game 21 times last season without visible adverse effects. Max Scherzer started 33 games a year ago and eclipsed the century mark in all but six. Granted, these two and others like them are the best in the game, but the question remains of why they're stable and sturdy while others like, say, Michael Kopech, are not.

Turning back to the local outfit, the aforementioned Ruiz is a converted catcher. And for good reason: he can't hit. In five seasons in the Padres organization, he hit just .207, but he threw out a lot of baserunners, apparently impressing his mentors with his live arm. The Sox claimed Ruiz off waivers from San Diego prior to last season, and a strong spring this year earned him a spot in the Sox bullpen.

Like most guys coming out of the bullpen these days, the 24-year-old Venezuelan right-hander throws in the upper 90s, but in six appearances so far this season, he hasn't been fooling too many hitters, and it's not because his arm is tired or damaged.

Ruiz followed Lopez to the mound Sunday and gave up a homer to none other than former Sock Gordon Beckham, who's been filling in at shortstop for Detroit until Jordy Mercer comes off the IL.

Beckham, the Sox's top draft choice (8th overall) in 2008, is the proverbial baseball lifer. Coming out of the University of Georgia, he played in just 59 minor league games before being summoned to the South Side in 2009. As a rookie he hit .270 with 14 homers and 63 RBIs. Unfortunately Beckham never quite reached those numbers again in the next five seasons before the Sox peddled him to the Angels.

However, Beckham was far from finished. He's signed seven free agent contracts in the last five years, including one with the Sox for the 2015 season. At 32, he remains willing to spend time in Triple-A, which he has done the past two seasons with the Mariners. A decent spring training with the Tigers found him traveling north with the big club.

Beckham always had problems with fastballs up in the zone, but Ruiz was accommodating on Sunday by throwing one down, which Beckham parked in the left field stands. As things progressed, his blast was the deciding factor; the Sox scored three times in the eighth inning but came up short.

Ruiz and his cohorts in the bullpen overall have not distinguished themselves so far this season with a composite 5.04 ERA, a distasteful recipe for any club with visions of improvement.

However, Lopez and his fellow starting pitchers have been even less effective, sporting a 5.80 ERA. In addition, Lucas Giolito strained a hamstring last Wednesday afternoon at The Grate against Kansas City. Until he came up lame with two outs in the third inning, Lucas was mowing down the Royals, holding them hitless while fanning five and walking only one.

Now he'll be inactive for the next couple of weeks, at least.

So now Manny Banuelos, another newcomer this season who has pitched in relief four times, gets his chance to start this evening as the Sox begin a three-game set in Baltimore. Banuelos made seven starts for Atlanta back in 2015, throwing as many as 92 pitches on two occasions. If that ticking number at the top of the screen goes past 92, chances are Manny will have done his job.


Former Bill Veeck bar buddy Roger Wallenstein is our White Sox correspondent. He welcomes your comments.

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