With Liam Hendriks aboard, White Sox envision elite late-game lockdown

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Vinnie Duber
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With Hendriks aboard, Sox envision elite late-game lockdown originally appeared on NBC Sports Chicago

Liam Hendriks sat down to his Zoom media session Friday, introduced as the White Sox closer.

Anyone who caught wind of the $54 million contract he signed this winter wouldn't have blinked at that introduction.

Except Hendriks, of course, who even this deep into spring camp is insisting he hasn't won the closer's job yet.

"White Sox reliever Liam Hendriks," he corrected the moderator.

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Make no mistake, Hendriks is the White Sox closer. That's why he's here. That's why he got that big free-agent payday. And that's part of the reason why there are such high hopes for this White Sox bullpen in 2021.

Hendriks is just the most lustrous jewel in a relief-pitching crown full of them: Aaron Bummer, Evan Marshall, Garrett Crochet, Michael Kopech, Codi Heuer, Matt Foster. That's a lengthy list of power arms.

It's such an impressive list, too, that the expectations are sky high. Last month, Marshall said that anything short of "elite" status for the White Sox 'pen would be a disappointment. Bummer phrased it another way Friday.

"I don't expect to lose a game if we're leading after the fifth inning," he said. "I really think that the talent in our bullpen is that good, to where we should be able to go out there and hold leads for our starters, regardless of the score.

"At the end of the day, I don't necessarily care if we end up the No. 1 rated bullpen or the No. 4 rated bullpen or No. 7. I want to be 90-0 with a lead after six innings.

"That's kind of our goal, is preserve leads, keep us in games that matter. If we're doing that, at the end of the day, our bullpen is going to be ranked damn near the top anyways."

It's a bunch that's not short on confidence, that's for sure.

The South Side bullpen was a strength in 2020, too, even if it ended that campaign with a thud. The parade of relievers in Game 3 of the AL Wild Card Series against Hendriks and the Oakland Athletics saw one clunker of an outing after another from a group of pitchers who, for the most part, had been stellar during the regular season.

Now, though, Hendriks — who closed out the White Sox, striking out three of the four hitters he faced in the ninth inning of Game 3 — is on their side.

"After last year, being on the receiving end on him," Crochet said, "I think we’re all pretty excited to have him on board."

Lucas Giolito, Dallas Keuchel and Lance Lynn have spent the offseason trading opinions on who will log the most innings in the White Sox rotation. The top three starting pitchers have all shown the ability to be workhorses. Lynn, the newcomer, led baseball in inning pitched last season.

But while none of them is likely to change their frame of mind — and Lynn will surely still put up a fight whenever Tony La Russa comes to remove him from a game — they feel good knowing the caliber of the relief corps behind them, the type of late-inning potential this White Sox 'pen has to preserve their hard work and pick up a "W."

"I want to go nine every start, but realistically, that's not happening. We all know that," Giolito said. "Our bullpen is fantastic. I feel comfortable handing the ball off to any of those guys, especially Liam in the ninth inning. He's got that closer mentality. I love to see it."

The White Sox finally got to see it in a game Friday, with Hendriks making his first Cactus League appearance of the spring. He went 1-2-3 with a strikeout in relief of Giolito.

That's why Hendriks makes the big bucks. But even after he made quick work of the Texas Rangers, he's not ready to assume the title of "closer" just yet.

"The one scoreless inning doesn’t give you anything," he said. "It’s a stepping stone, and it’s the way I’ve approached the last couple of years. I just have to make sure I get there."

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