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Adjustments come on the fly for relief pitchers

Matt Thornton and Jesse Crain were on the field early Monday at U.S. Cellular Field, doing long toss and then simply playing catch before that night's game against the Red Sox.

The White Sox relievers were tinkering with their pitches to make sure everything was in line should they have to come out of the bullpen later that night to face David Ortiz or another Red Sox slugger in a key situation.

In the world of relievers, there is no time off and every game brings with it the potential of an appearance. They don't get a break between outings like starting pitchers where, if they falter, they can take time to fine-tune their mechanics. Instead, relievers are always one call away from going into the game, so it's impossible to work out issues in a bullpen session when they could pitch that night.

"You're kind of working on the fly," Thornton said of dealing with slumps. "Obviously you watch video to try to find things mechanically that might be wrong, but when you're called on in a situation you've gotta go."

Video isn't for everyone, though.

"A lot of times they look at video, but a lot of players don't have the trained eye to spot minor technical flaws," Dodgers bullpen coach Chuck Crim said. "More often, they can feel it."

And that, Thornton said, can take a while.

"[It took] a few years before I could start recognizing what was going wrong and make the adjustment quickly and realize what pitches were [working] that night," said the 10-year veteran. "If you didn't have a good feel for a certain pitch to be able to can it real quick and move on from it. You've got to work."

Working through funks and trying to find yourself as a reliever is difficult, and there is no sure-fire way to go about it. Some look at video or do dry work, while Crim's Dodgers throw short 10- to 15-pitch bullpen sessions if they need to tinker with their mechanics.

Crim also said it's important for relievers to stay with their routine and remain confident in their stuff, regardless of the results.

"We look for mechanical glitches, but sometimes the game's just cruel to you," Crim said. "You teach the guys that today is a whole new day, you pitch again the next night, you've got to be able to flush it."

The mental aspect, as with all areas of professional sports, is key.

"You just have to have confidence with what you've got," said Cubs left-hander James Russell, who has allowed one earned run in 17 1/3 innings this season. "You can't really make a whole lot of changes throughout the year. It's kind of difficult, because you need to be out there every day and ready to throw."

Giants left-hander Javier Lopez said the biggest thing is compartmentalizing outings that don't go your way.

"Ultimately it does come down to the mental approach and trying to pull positives out of any outing that you have, as dire as they might be, and try to focus on that," Lopez said. "You don't want to get too result-oriented, which is easier said than done, especially as a reliever, because [being] a reliever is almost like a revolving-door kind of situation.

"If you're not getting the job done, they'll make a move one way or another to get another arm up, because you can't afford to have a guy not get you results."

And while starters have the benefit of having four or more days between outings to hone their craft, a positive of being a reliever is getting an immediate opportunity to put a bad outing behind them.

"It's nice whenever you go and get your butt whooped, you can get back out there and be in the same situation the next day and it can be totally different," Russell said.

The key for relievers is to quickly put their rough outings behind them and keep their mechanics inline using whatever works best.

"It comes with the job, and I think you learn it as you get more time in being a reliever and getting used to it," Thornton said. "You make the adjustments quickly, and I think that's what makes a successful reliever, is a guy who can make that adjustment quickly, whether it's pitch to pitch in the game or outing to outing and bounce back."

Cash Kruth is a reporter for Follow him on Twitter at @cashkruth.

Jesse Crain, Javier Lopez, Matt Thornton