Liam Hendriks doesn’t consider himself the White Sox closer.
At least not on his second day of Spring Training with the team that brought the right-hander aboard via a four-year, $54 million contract this past offseason.
Hendriks clearly is the only person in baseball who feels this way. But that one assessment during his entertaining and informative 20-minute Zoom session Thursday shows the veteran’s dedication to constantly getting better.
“If I ever become satisfied, it means I'm going backwards,” Hendriks said. “So I constantly think I can do better. Regardless of numbers or anything like that, there's always something you can get better at, and that can improve your season and improve you as a team, whether it be on the field, off the field, as a teammate, as a human being. There's always something to move forward, push forward.”
“That’s the attitude you want,” White Sox manager Tony La Russa said. “If you see him in person and how strong he is, I’m not going to disagree with him.”
La Russa managed Albert Pujols with the Cardinals from 2001-11, and the future Hall of Famer always maintained the attitude of just trying to make the team out of Spring Training. Hendriks’ view is along those same lines.
The right-hander's run with the White Sox officially began with a bullpen session thrown to catcher Yasmani Grandal on Wednesday. It became an eye-opening session, as Grandal alerted Hendriks about tipping pitches in the at-bat leading to the slugger’s home run during Game 2 of last year's American League Wild Card Series in Oakland.
“So that's fun,” said Hendriks with a broad smile. “It's pretty much the most productive home run I've given up, so there's that. Throwing to him was fine, but he caught everything well. For a pitcher, that makes you feel like your stuff isn't quite there yet, so that wasn't ideal either. I was excited to throw to him, be able to see the way he sets up, the way I come at the plate.”
“Obviously, you want to have a pitcher of his caliber, and you want a guy that no matter what, he's going to be out there,” Grandal said. “If you need five innings, he's going to give you the five innings. Not that we don't have a certain guy like that, but a guy who has done it before -- it's rare. So the fact that we were able to get him over, it's great for us.”
In that playoff victory for the Athletics, Hendriks struck out five White Sox batters over 1 2/3 innings but was pushed to 49 pitches before being removed with the bases loaded, two outs and Grandal back at the plate in the ninth. It seemed a tough challenge for Hendriks to pitch again in Game 3, but there he was striking out the side to close out Chicago's season.
The reality is Hendriks wants the ball as much as the White Sox are willing to give it to him, and for as many innings as needed. But with Hendriks’ most important desire simply to be part of a championship-winning team, La Russa will find a balance for that sort of multi-inning usage.
“Overall, the record shows that if you can save some pitches for August, September when the end's in sight -- and hopefully October -- it's like putting money in the bank,” La Russa said. “Our goal is to have a bullpen where we're deep enough where we can keep him pitching, keep him strong and healthy all year long. His attitude is outstanding."
Great depth exists in the White Sox bullpen, from Aaron Bummer to Evan Marshal to Codi Heuer to Garrett Crochet, just to name a few. There are options to work the ninth inning on that rare occasion when Hendriks needs a day off, but the best closer in baseball over the past two years is likely to finish off most White Sox victories.
Just don’t tell the affable but competitive Hendriks the job is already his.
“Until anything happens, I'm just a reliever on this team, so I need to make sure that I earn that spot,” Hendriks said. “There's never going to be a guarantee of me doing anything, whether it be the ninth or anything like that. My guarantee is me going out there and pitching and putting my best foot forward and hopefully winning that role.
“The biggest thing for me is getting ready early. If I can get out there early and maybe get five or six outings in there early, then I can kind of coast a little bit toward the end rather than, ‘Oh God, I need to rush toward the end to get everything ready.’ It's just making sure my body gets used to the day-in, day-out grind.”