Liam Hendriks has the same opinion as his teammates and White Sox brass.
“As everyone in this clubhouse will tell you, there is a (lot) of talent in here. And I still believe we can go on a run like anybody else,” the South Side closer told CHGO on Saturday. “We can go on a run where we demolish every team that comes in our way. We’ve got the amount of talent in this room to be able to do that. It’s just a matter of getting it all flowing in the right direction.”
But let’s be honest, you’re pretty tired of hearing how much talent the White Sox have.
Especially when they’re on the other side of the season’s halfway mark, in third place in the AL Central and owners of a sub-.500 record.
You’re sick of hearing that it’ll click one day, that once everyone’s off the IL and into their rhythms at the plate that the clouds will clear and the sun will come out. You’re sick of watching a team with so much talent fail to score runs, fail to hit homers, fail to go a game without making mistakes in the field or on the base paths.
You’re sick of this team, with its preseason World Series expectations, losing more often than not.
Well good thing for you, then, that Hendriks has some other opinions.
The back-to-back AL Reliever of the Year has been around the block. And though he broke down for me that he’s still relatively new to playing on a team with big expectations – and therefore relatively new to failing to meet them halfway through a season – he’s noticed some things that need to be different if the White Sox are going to dig out of what he called “a big old hole” and save this campaign.
“One of the biggest things we need to figure out inside this clubhouse is the mindset. I think a lot of it comes down to that more than anything else,” he said. “I think everyone can see the talent, everyone can see everything that’s going on. But our mindset, our attitude toward being aggressive, … trying to do those little things.
“Like if you hit a single to left, all of a sudden you can turn it into a double if he bobbles it. That’s an uplifting thing for your entire team. You fall behind a guy 3-0, you come back and get that guy out, that’s an uplifting thing for the entire team. There’s certain situations where you can have a very, very positive impact with the little things that we should be doing anyway. And I think that’s one thing we really need to focus on.
“There’s so many different variants of pressure that you can put on the opposition that can completely swing a game. It could be something as (little as) you don’t even score on a single that you turn into a double, but it completely changes what else is going on. ‘OK. He can do that? I can do that, as well. Watch me.’ And that’s something I think we really need to focus on making sure we do.”
Considering that most of Hendriks’ teammates have pegged the team’s struggles as unexplainable, this struck as a very different kind of response.
No one inside that clubhouse is immune to reality, of course, but the types of answers offered up by, for example, AJ Pollock and Dylan Cease after Thursday’s loss to the Tigers, only served to further frustrate an already frustrated fan base.
“Honestly, it’s hard to explain,” Pollock said. “It’s not really our job to explain. We’ve got to go out there, and we’ve got to fix stuff. We’ve got to put our good routines out there and keep working. You hope it turns. We had a good day (Wednesday), and it feels like a letdown (Thursday). But you’ve just got to keep working.”
“There isn’t a lack of work,” Cease said. “Sometimes in baseball, things happen. We definitely hold ourselves to a higher standard than what we’ve been playing at. At the end of the day, we are going to keep putting in the work. And there’s still a lot of season left. I wouldn’t count us out of it yet.”
Those explanations, if you want to call them that, did little to placate fans, little to inform them of what’s gone wrong for a team with so much preseason promise.
Hendriks didn’t offer up any swing breakdowns or pitch-by-pitch analysis during our Saturday morning chat. But he offered a glimpse inside the clubhouse and what needs to change if the White Sox, who indeed are not out of time, are going to make something of the second half of their season.
“There are certain times when we haven’t done that,” Hendriks said of his insistence that these White Sox need to focus on the little things and push the competition harder. “Especially if we’ve been losing, late in the game or anything like that, I think there are a lot more energy levels that we can use.
“Obviously I’m not in the dugout, but in the bullpen, we talk about this sort of stuff, we talk about the things where it’s, ‘What can we do?’ We need those momentum days where we can run and rally and take off. … Those little things, when you take advantage of the other team with miscues, … I think that’s something that we as a unit need to focus on a little bit more. I don’t think we’ve done it enough.
“There have been some times, but I don’t think we’ve done it enough. And we need to make sure all those little bits and pieces come falling through. When we take care of what we can take care of, mentally and physically, inside our own clubhouse, I don’t think there are too many teams in the American League that are better.”
It’s this kind of thing White Sox fans have been clamoring for, someone to force the team into the extra gear that it’s shown it possesses. The South Siders ran away with the AL Central last season, and they did it while dealing with the sorts of months-long injuries that have plagued the team this year.
Instead of mirroring last season’s success in spite of those absences, though, the White Sox have looked like a shockingly different team. They’ve struggled mightily to score runs, they haven’t hit many home runs, and even on days when the offense has produced a sizable run total, there have been times when the pitching, which has generally been pretty good, hasn’t been there to match.
With so many days of nothing offensively – like that Thursday loss, in which the White Sox managed just two hits through the game’s first eight innings – the fan reactions have been easy to predict: complaints that the players look like they don’t care, that they’re not trying, that through a television screen the team’s heart, drive and energy levels can be assessed as nonexistent.
Certainly that’s not the truth, and none of those folks have any actual insight into the behind-the-scenes goingson to accurately make such a judgment.
From this observer’s perspective, the clubhouse culture that has long seemed such a strength of this rebuilt roster seems mostly unchanged. Obviously, as losses pile up, it’s difficult to have the kind of fun these players made a calling card a couple years back. But there are still smiles, still laughs and still the same light-hearted personalities showing up at the park every day, the next day’s mood not often impacted by what happened the night before.
That’s my read, anyway. Hendriks offered a true insider’s perspective and admitted that losing has indeed had an effect. This clubhouse is nowhere near broken, but it also hasn’t been all sunshine and lollipops, either.
If fun is winning and winning is fun, then losing is, you know, not.
“It’s a struggle,” Hendriks said of the team’s mood throughout a disappointing and frustrating three months. “There are some days when it’s good, there are some days where it’s tough. Maybe it’s a day game after a night game, you just don’t have that energy level. That’s something that some people are good at producing themselves, some people are good at feeding off others. The people that produce it themselves need to make sure they can do it so others can feed off them.
“Sometimes we’ve been lacking in that department a little bit, but that’s generally how it goes when you’re not having the results that you expected or wanted. Nothing’s ever as easy as just showing up to the field and playing and doing it that way.
“The culture in here is good.”
That good clubhouse includes, by the way, the players’ relationship with their manager.
Tony La Russa has been the biggest target of fan frustration this summer, in most cases a seeming reflection of the opinion many had of his hiring back in 2020. But if last year’s division championship quieted that initial anger, the lack of wins this year has cranked it up to 11, and rarely has a home game gone by without chants of “fire Tony” emanating from the stands.
“It’s frustrating for us. Because obviously we love Tony in this clubhouse,” Hendriks said. “We appreciate everything he’s been doing in this clubhouse. We know the amount of effort, the amount of work that goes into his decision-making. I mean, the guy’s a Hall of Famer. I don’t think people remember that, and that’s unfortunate.
“There’s a reason he’s in the Hall of Fame. It’s because of those decisions that he made, it’s because of weird, odd decisions that have gone (right) in the past, that have worked out. … Right now, he’s making those same choices, but we’re not rewarding him with a winning result. A lot of it comes down to the players.
“At the end of the day, Tony is fantastic in this clubhouse, and it’s unfortunate that we hear (those chants). But I also love the fact that the fans are so passionate. I love the fact that the fans are willing to go out there and be upset that we’re not doing what we should be doing. And that’s something that you need in a fan base. You want them to be upset with you if you’re not doing well because you want that on you to try and get better every single day to make sure they love and respect you when you do well.”
One player’s opinion on what La Russa does behind the scenes and the way the clubhouse feels about him isn’t likely to decrease those chants if the losses keep coming. La Russa’s job status is a perfectly valid discussion point if you believe the buck stops at the manager’s desk, and he’s done his best to profess his accountability when things go wrong. He’s willing to take the heat and has said similar things to what Hendriks said, arguing that he prefers passionate fan anger to fan apathy.
But an unexpected axing of the three-time World Series winner is unlikely to raise Yoán Moncada’s batting average, lower Joe Kelly’s ERA, stop Lucas Giolito’s struggles or return Yasmani Grandal and Aaron Bummer from the IL.
When it comes to what effects La Russa can have at the moment, it sounds like his general message is an overwhelmingly positive one that has resonated with players.
“I think his message has always been we’re a family in here. We play and (win and) lose as family,” Hendriks said. “There’s no individual. You’re not by yourself, you’re not doing it alone, you’re not doing it for yourself. You go out there and we play as a team, we play as a unit. Because the only way that we’re going to go out there and beat teams is when we’re a cohesive family. And that’s something I think a lot of the guys really appreciate.
“You saw the ‘family’ shirts running around last year. A lot of the guys are still wearing them this year, and that’s something I think is one of the bigger things. The old saying goes: ‘A champion team will always beat a team of champions.’ You play as one, you rally for that guy next to you, it almost gives you an extra level of performance.
“That’s something we do believe in this clubhouse is going on, but we just haven’t quite translated it on the scoreboard into wins yet.”
In the end, that’s how all these White Sox will be judged. The win-loss record is completely different from what was expected, and that has everyone searching for answers. Hendriks has some thoughts on what could be improved, what could be different. And he’s surely not alone among the people with the power to actually turn this ship around.
An attitude adjustment might be too strong a description of what these White Sox need, but their closer thinks that something above the neck needs tweaking, or at the very least consistency, if they’re going to dig out of that “big old hole.”
For what it’s worth, Hendriks feels he’s seen positive signs in recent weeks, whether in White Sox wins or near comebacks that featured late-inning rallies. We’ve been searching for a turning point for this team all season. But maybe instead of a springboard, it’s a slow turn.
“Last week in San Fran, the last game (of this week’s series) against Minnesota – even the first game against Minnesota, the extra-inning loss – we got it in our minds that we can do a lot of things. It’s just making sure that comes to the field every day, that mindset of being aggressive and, ‘We’re never out of this game,’” Hendriks said. “It’s a sign of coming around the curve, our offense realizing we’re never out of it, the pitching realizing we’re never out of it.
“Once we realize that, it’ll be smooth sailing. But we’ve got a big old hole to dig ourselves out of right now.”