Liam Hendriks is one of baseball's best closers. So is Craig Kimbrel.
Who gets the ball in the ninth?
For the Chicago White Sox, who traded for Kimbrel on Friday, making a trade-deadline splash to go along with their high-priced offseason signing of Hendriks at the back end of their bullpen, the answer seems to be that whoever it is, it'll go well.
One of those good problems to have, perhaps.
"There's a lot of talent and a lot of guys that can get the job done," Kimbrel said Saturday about the South Side bullpen. "I see a lot of wins in this team's future for the rest of the year. There's going to be a lot of guys needed to lock games down and close games out, and I think every single one of us is going to be a part of that."
Kimbrel's been closing out games for a while, and his 370 saves rank as the ninth most in baseball history. His pencil-thin 0.49 ERA this season once again has him among the game's best closers. That's where Hendriks, of course, has been for the last three seasons now, first as the Oakland Athletics' dominant game-ender and now with the White Sox after signing a $54 million free-agent deal over the winter.
Certainly both have earned the right to take the ball for the 25th, 26th and 27th outs of games. But two is better than one, and now manager Tony La Russa has two elite arms to choose from as he plots out his pitching over the course of any given set of nine innings.
"We're not going to have a closer controversy," La Russa said.
Undoubtedly, there will be a feeling-out process as La Russa puts his bullpen pieces together over the final two months of the regular season, prepping for what, thanks to the arrival of Kimbrel and fellow former Cubs reliever Ryan Tepera, could be a lengthy October run fueled by one of the game's most menacing relief corps.
That's what's got the primaries jazzed in this situation. It's not about figuring out who has which inning. It's about who can get outs, no matter when they come in the game, and how the team as a whole can keeping getting wins.
"My job is to come here and do whatever I need to do to help this team win and get to the playoffs," Kimbrel said. "I'm going to be closing games, I'm going to be throwing in the eighth inning, I'm going to be doing whatever I need to do. And hopefully the whole idea is to structure it out in a way where we're all healthy and ready to go once October gets here. Because we all know how that goes, if we play seven games, you're going to pitch in all seven games. If we can get there healthy and this thing works out like it's supposed to, it's going to be fun."
"Whatever the way it’s called down there, I’m just waiting for the phone to ring and whenever they call my name, I’ll be ready to go and that’s what it takes," Hendriks said. "We have no egos out there. There’s no one who’s going to be pissed off (about) a diminished role or stuff like that. I don’t think any of us care. We just want to win. That’s what we’re going for now."
La Russa indicated that the name he calls upon to get a game's final outs will depend on availability, at least at first. That presented itself right away, as after four appearances in six days, Hendriks was unavailable Saturday night against the Cleveland Indians. So in a save situation, it'll be Kimbrel to the hill on his first day with his new team.
But certainly there will be days when both are able to answer the bell. And though he wouldn't reveal exactly what he's thinking, the manager said that he has a plan of action in mind.
"The day that they're both available, it will be real clear, if we have the lead, who pitches the eighth and who pitches the ninth," La Russa said. "It's not going to be a quarterback controversy. It's not going to be a closer controversy. It's going to be: 'Let's get the outs and let's get a win and let's keep going forward.'"
In the end, the seeming willingness of both guys to relinquish that prestigious title of designated ninth-inning man seems to only be another plus for the White Sox as they chase a championship. Kimbrel's won one of those already — with the Boston Red Sox in 2018, when La Russa was part of that front office — and Hendriks has the experience of delivering in October, too, eliminating the White Sox last fall before joining them in the winter. So their veteran status and postseason knowhow should only help them and the rest of the arms in the 'pen work well together, without any drama, en route to the ultimate goal.
"My thought process has always been I just want to play," Hendriks said. "It doesn’t matter which situation, I’ve got no ego. I don’t care if I have the ninth, the eighth, the fifth. I don’t care. All I want to do is play."
"I think that's what's going to make this group work and make it successful," Kimbrel said. "Obviously we know what situation this is and what it looks like. But we also understand we've got jobs to do, and we can't let stuff like that get in the way of what our job is. And that's to win ballgames and get this team where they need to be."