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How Liam Hendriks can help Sox avoid repeat of 2020 stumble

/ by Vinnie Duber
Presented By Nationwide Insurance Agent Jeff Vukovich
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Liam Hendriks did his thing last fall, screaming and fist-pumping as he eliminated the Chicago White Sox from their first postseason trip in a dozen years.

"I kept saying, 'My bad,'" Hendriks said during an interview with NBC Sports Chicago on Thursday in Oakland. "'I know we won last year, my bad.'"

It was an ugly ending to what at times looked like a potential dream season for the South Siders. They were the American League's top team with 10 games to play in the regular season. Then they lost eight of those games before quickly bowing out of the playoffs in a best-of-three playoff series against Hendriks and the Oakland Athletics.

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Several White Sox players, including team leader José Abreu, admitted that the team took its collective foot off the gas after clinching a playoff spot. As much as 2020 was about the White Sox transitioning from rebuilders to contenders, the ending left a sour enough taste that big changes were deemed necessary, none bigger than the managerial swap, Rick Renteria replaced with Tony La Russa.

Bringing in Hendriks was another one of those big changes, the White Sox dropping some hefty free-agency cash on one of the best closers in baseball.

Hendriks' goal upon his arrival on the South Side? Help make sure that his new team didn't suffer the same fate that he dealt them a year ago.

 

"A lot of focus has been on, since we've taken a little bit of a lead in the division, making sure what happened to these guys last year doesn't happen again," Hendriks said. "And that's the one thing I've been harping on to as many people as will listen is not getting complacent, not getting too ahead of ourselves.

"At the end of the day, the last week of the season is what matters the most in the regular season. If you've clinched or anything like that, those last few games are really going to turn the tide, for the good or the bad, when you get to the playoffs. Keep that focus and keep that (pedal) to the metal, it's just one of those things that we really need to focus on, especially with what happened last year."

Hendriks has indeed been harping on the idea that the White Sox should be playing their best baseball at the end of September, peaking at the right time, just before the playoffs begin.

And there's no reason the White Sox shouldn't listen to him, especially the guys he blew away in back-to-back appearances in that AL Wild Card Series that drove a stake through the heart of the South Siders' season. Hendriks faced 14 batters across Games 2 and 3 and struck out eight of them.

One of the few hitters he didn't fan was Tim Anderson, who picked up a base hit in Game 3. Anderson, in a particularly joking mood Wednesday in Oakland, took those bragging rights to heart and gave his assessment of Hendriks' stuff from last fall.

"His s--t's weak," Anderson said with a laugh. "He knows that. He knows I whoop him every day. I told him when spring training started, I want to be here every time he goes to pitch. I'm going to be in there so we can compete.

"We got a good piece from (signing) him. He's been doing a heck of a job since we got him, so hopefully he can keep it up and carry it on into October."

Obviously, the best way Hendriks can help the White Sox avoid the same late-season letdown they experienced in 2020 is with what he does on the mound. Fans surely won't need too much prodding to jog memories of the nightly bullpen collapses during that four-game series in Cleveland on the regular season's final road trip. With one of the game's elite ninth-inning men, that seems less likely to occur again.

But Hendriks brings more assistance from his recent experience pitching with the A's — and against the White Sox.

Not only is he a postseason veteran, bringing the same kind of experience the White Sox will get from the likes of Lance Lynn, Dallas Keuchel and Yasmani Grandal, but he's fresh off facing these very South Side hitters. He remembers what it was like to pitch against them with the season on the line. And he could prove helpful in attempting to navigate baseball's never-ending chess match.

 

"I've got some bragging rights on some of the guys, and some of the guys have some bragging rights on me," Hendriks said. "It was nice because I could tell these guys exactly the way I was attacking them. And whether that helps them or not, that's the way I went about it.

"I think everyone was surprised when I faced Luis Robert, faced him back-to-back days and struck him out both times all on fastballs, never threw him anything else. And that was completely predetermined, completely planned ahead. I know my fastball plays well, and after a couple swings, it was evident I could get that by him and do that. I've mentioned as much to him.

"Whether they took it or not is another thing, because at the end of the day you're still going to do what you feel you need to do to be successful and pitch and hit to your strengths. But it was cool being able to play against them, and now knowing the people, it's even better."

In the end, though, Hendriks is looking for wins. He's looking to see what he believes his team is capable of at a very specific time, right before the playoffs start.

Important to the White Sox being able to do that, of course, is health, something that seems to be turning in their favor, with Lynn coming off the injured list and Lucas Giolito expected to return not far behind. Anderson will perhaps be the final piece of the puzzle, and he's been doing more as he works his way back from a persistent hamstring issue.

Though the timing of those injuries set off a few alarm bells, the players have insisted that experiencing injuries to those key players in early September was vastly superior to experiencing them in late September.

Hendriks, too, doesn't see it as an issue.

"I don't think any of those three need the conditioning time to get back up to scratch," he said. "If it's October, this isn't even a possibility. And I think it's one of those things where right now we have the luxury of doing it, with the luxury of being able to get them back with a couple of weeks left and get that ball rolling a little bit.

"I don't think you really have to worry about Lance, Gio or Tim coming back. They're the guys that are going to be raring to go no matter what. Let's be honest, Lance could pitch through a broken leg if it's the playoffs. And I think it's the same for Tim and Gio.

"If it's October, they're pushing through no matter what. They're damn near hockey players."

With their health issues behind them, the White Sox could do just what Hendriks has been preaching all season.

And if they keep listening to him, they could have an even better shot at avoiding what sank them a season ago.

 

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