Jenks aims to keep getting better
Young reliever won a cult following with his work last season
TUCSON, Ariz. -- Bobby Jenks has a dream.
Let's actually call it a target for perfection as the White Sox closer.
This particular vision involves Eric Gagne, the one-time unstoppable Dodgers closer, whose streak of 84 consecutive saves came to an end against Arizona in July of 2004. With Jenks' makeup and physical skills, some of the big right-hander's friends and teammates believe Jenks can reach that same sort of dominant level in the not too distant future.
"Yeah, eventually, you want to get to that point," Jenks said. "When you get out there, just your name alone makes hitters get that little, 'Here he comes. We have to get ourselves going early,' or whatever.
"I'm pretty sure I'm not close to being a Gagne yet, but it would be fun to get that sort of status. Absolutely."
Jenks took on a sort of cult following from the first time he joined the White Sox from Double-A Birmingham on July 5 of last season. His debut on July 6 against Tampa Bay featured two strikeouts in one scoreless inning, but it was the 99 mph fastballs he unleashed that produced a palpable murmur among the crowd in Chicago.
The radar gun on the scoreboard at U.S. Cellular Field is known to be a little bit fast, but the measurements on Jenks' pitches were right on the money. He topped out at 101 mph on the radar gun at Kauffman Stadium on July 27.
But as the season came toward a climax, it quickly became apparent Jenks was more than just a blazing heater. He was gradually worked into the closer's role, with Dustin Hermanson battling severe back problems and 2004 closer Shingo Takatsu no longer in the plans.
It was Jenks who stood in the White Sox clubhouse at the Kino Sports Complex back in February 2005, going virtually unnoticed even at 6-foot-3, 270 pounds, aside from whispers of his immense talent and unfulfilled potential as part of the Angels' system. It was the same Jenks who closed out the American League Central clincher in Detroit, the Division Series in Boston and the World Series sweep in Houston during October. He only produced six saves during the regular season, but he will be immortalized on video, in print and in pictures as part of one of the greatest moments in franchise history.
Credit goes to Jenks for his poise and control, striking out 50 and walking just 15 over 39 1/3 innings, after issuing 270 free passes over five Minor League seasons as a starter with the Angels. Jenks also appreciates the manner in which manager Ozzie Guillen and pitching coach Don Cooper eased him into the spotlight. The confidence always was there in the untested 24-year-old, even when he hit a blip on the late-inning radar.
One of the lasting World Series impressions came immediately after Scott Podsednik's walk-off home run against Brad Lidge in Game 2. Guillen found Jenks, who had blown a two-run, ninth-inning lead, and made sure he was ready for action in Games 3 and 4. Jenks responded with three scoreless innings.
"It was reassurance that Ozzie had all the confidence in me," Jenks said of the World Series moment with Guillen. "It was just one game. I knew that already, but him reassuring me really helped.
"They let me get my feet wet during the season," Jenks added with a smile. "Then, I was in up to my knees and then waist. I respect them a lot for the way they handled me."
Even now, though, a safety net exists for the second-year player. Hermanson reported to Spring Training 10 pounds lighter through extensive offseason physical therapy on his back and announced that he was feeling great. Both Hermanson and left-hander Neal Cotts could spell Jenks in the late innings, even if Jenks proves to be unhittable.
Guillen's protective nature that was such a boon for Jenks in 2005 will be countered by Guillen's competitive nature to win where Jenks is concerned this season. As Guillen showed by replacing Billy Koch with Shingo Takatsu in 2004, Takatsu with Hermanson in 2005 and then Hermanson with Jenks, he does not believe on the closer-until-the-bitter-end philosophy.
"If we started today, yes, Bobby Jenks would be my closer," Guillen said. "But I don't like to use the word closer. You make a commitment and keep giving him the ball, he keeps making mistakes and that's when a manager loses his job.
"With the way Bobby finished up last year, he has the best shot. There's no doubt in my mind that the guy throwing the ball the best at that particular time is going to be my closer."
Jenks understands and applauds the various late-inning options in the White Sox bullpen, but he also fully expected to perform as he did last year and quickly challenge for the regular closer's role. He is not worried about opposing hitters cheating on his fastball, basically because he's far more than a one-pitch or even two-pitch pitcher, according to catcher Chris Widger.
"He has a good slider and changeup, too," said Widger of Jenks' repertoire, aside from his fastball and sharp-breaking offspeed pitch "He has four pitches he can use as a closer, which you just don't see very much, and it's amazing how good they are. I think that's what is going to separate him in the future.
"What he did last year was amazing. He was in Double-A, and the next thing you know he's pitching in the World Series. There's enough pressure with being the closer, and on top of that, being a young guy, and on top of that, waiting 88 years to get a championship in the city of Chicago."
The hurler spawned a T-shirt in Venezuela, according to Guillen, featuring the manager's special call to the bullpen indicating Jenks' girth. He eventually wants to be known less for his size and more because he's as automatic as Gagne.
For now, Jenks will simply settle on staying healthy for another full season, after right elbow problems plagued him during his time with the Angels. He also wouldn't mind closing out another World Series title or two.
"I showed in a half-season what I can do, and I just have to put two halves together," Jenks said. "I didn't come in here to change who I am or how I pitch. I'm going to go out and do the same things I did last year. If I do those, I should be successful."
"If he stays healthy and he keeps his mindset the way it was last year, if he stays humble and works hard, there's no reason why he shouldn't save 35 or 40 games," Widger added. "He's going to stumble. He's going to blow a save. He won't be automatic. At 25, just give him a break and let him go. In the long run, he will be fine."
Scott Merkin is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.