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Blown save vs. Cubs not stopping Liam Hendriks, White Sox from seeing Gregory Santos’ closer potential

Vinnie Duber Avatar
August 17, 2023

“Anytime we’ve got Santos on the mound with a 3-1 lead in the ninth, I’m good.”

White Sox fans don’t seem to be super into agreeing with Pedro Grifol these days, but they’d be hard pressed to object to that line of thinking.

Gregory Santos blew Wednesday night’s game in stunning fashion, a 3-1 lead flipping to a 4-3 walk-off loss in a blink after a leadoff double, a walk and a three-run homer from Christopher Morel had Wrigley Field going bananas.

It was just a night earlier that Santos looked untouchable against this same Cubs lineup, mowing down all five batters he faced — and striking out three of them — for a high-intensity save.

But the White Sox’ new closer couldn’t get anyone out this time, foisting a learning experience on himself as he looks to keep hold of a job he earned by being the team’s best reliever this season.

“He’s been unbelievable for us all year long,” Mike Clevinger said. “It’s certainly not on him at all. It’s tough. It’s the toughest part of being a closer. It’s not your fault, but sometimes it happens.”

Indeed, even Liam Hendriks, who had a multi-year reign as the best ninth-inning man in the sport, had his share of blowups. White Sox fans can probably rattle off a few from memory.

Wednesday night wasn’t a warning for the South Siders that Santos can’t handle the spotlight. It was just part of the job. And just as he looked the part with a dominant performance Tuesday, he looked the part in shrugging off the failure Wednesday.

“Things didn’t go my way, and they got the win,” he said through team interpreter Billy Russo. “I was ahead in the count and threw a good pitch. He didn’t swing at it. It’s like, ‘Well, let’s attack him again.’ It was a sinker, and he hit it.”

Asked what he learned from the moment, he said, “That I have to throw my slider. … That’s my best pitch. I have men on base and I was trying to be fancy, and that’s what happened.”

It was just hours earlier that Santos was earning heaps of praise for a strong season that saw him enter the game with a 2.53 ERA and a newly acquired job as the closer of the present — and perhaps the future, too.

How long he’ll be the guy is the question as the White Sox look ahead to a 2024 season in which they hope to compete without the services of Hendriks, scheduled to miss most, if not all, of next year’s campaign while recovering from Tommy John surgery.

It’s fitting, then, that Hendriks has stepped up to help mold Santos into someone that can handle the intense pressures of the ninth inning.

It started, interestingly enough, with the All-Star closer trying to make Santos, a chill dude who was practically giggling while fielding reporters’ questions during a pregame media session Wednesday, angrier.

“It was more a little bit along the lines of me trying to get him angry,” Hendriks told CHGO. “There was a game at the start of the year where he started the inning off with a fastball at 93, 94, and then he got a couple guys on, got mad and sat 100. That means it’s in there.

“So we worked a little bit on that, on trying to get him to be angry from the get-go. There’s certain times where you may not have an opportunity to last two batters and then get angry. It may be a thing where you need to get (angry) straight from the gate.”

Santos, who earlier in the season was spotted wearing a headband that read “I AM GROOT,” is probably enough of a Marvel fan to know the superhuman benefits of getting angry.

And certainly Hendriks is an expert on faking enough anger to turn himself into a superhuman pitcher. That fabricated rage made him the best closer in baseball.

Now he’s trying to teach that to the next generation.

“We constantly talk,” Hendriks said. “He’s opened up his shell a little bit more as the season’s gone on, which has been great. … There’s nothing I can teach him about pitching. He throws a completely different arsenal than me. … But any sort of thing where I can be there for guidance, that was one of the reasons I wanted to stick around.

“I asked Pedro (Grifol) and (Ethan) Katz and (Curt Hasler) and Jerry (Reinsdorf), ‘I know it’s not normal for a guy who’s had Tommy John or a major injury to be sticking around. If there’s a chance, I feel I can have some value on this team, especially with the young bullpen we’ve got.’ And Gregory’s a big part of that.”

Santos was elevated to the closer’s role in the immediate aftermath of the White Sox dealing away four of their back-end bullpen arms at the trade deadline. With Hendriks already on the shelf and Kendall Graveman, Joe Kelly, Reynaldo López and Keynan Middleton shipped out of town, Santos was the next man up.

But as Hendriks explained, this wasn’t just a matter of Grifol turning to the next available arm in the ‘pen. Santos has earned this with his performance this season.

That aforementioned ERA, up to 3.00 after Wednesday, is the best of anyone who’s thrown more than six innings for this staff this season. Entering Wednesday, only four guys had posted more bWAR in a White Sox uniform than Santos this year, and one of them, Lucas Giolito, is now playing for another team.

Acquired in a trade this winter to reteam with Katz, who worked with Santos when he was part of the Giants organization, Santos has flourished, impressing everyone who’s watched him pitch.

“Dylan (Cease) made a comment: ‘How did we get this guy?’” Aaron Bummer said last week. “It’s awesome to see success stories. People go out there and take a hold of a role and take hold of the ability they had. His ability, I don’t know how many people are able to throw the baseball the way that he does. For him to kind of thrive in the limelight, he’s fun to watch pitch.”

It might have seemed a no-brainer of sorts that Grifol & Co. would turn to Santos to fill the closer’s role after the season he’s had, but Hendriks wanted to make sure that any advice he was passing along was to someone the team was serious about turning into a closer.

“When all the trades happened, I think it was Has came up to me and asked, ‘Would you mind talking to him?’” Hendriks said. “I said, ‘I’m fine talking to him, but I want the clarification.’ So I went and spoke to Pedro, went and spoke to Katz, and said, ‘If this is the plan, I can talk to him. But I want to make sure I’m not telling him to be ready for the eighth or the ninth and then all of a sudden he’s warming up for the seventh. We need to have guidelines with it all.’

“At the end of the day, this is a young kid who’s really getting an opportunity in the big leagues for the first time, a long extended look. So this is a thing where you need to make sure that if you’re going to put him into a role, you need to stick to that role.”

If he keeps pitching the way he’s been pitching, Santos could hold onto the role for a while. As mentioned, Hendriks’ recovery from Tommy John surgery could keep him from pitching at all next season. And considering that’s the final year of his contract — if the front office picks up a club option for 2024, that is — it’s a mystery whether he’ll pitch for the White Sox again.

So there’s an opportunity for Santos to not just become the closer for the next year-plus, but an opportunity for him to become the closer, period, for the foreseeable future.

“I wanted that role,” Santos said before Wednesday’s game. “I had a conversation with them and I told them, ‘I would like to be a closer.’ They asked me, ‘Do you have the guts to be that guy?’ I told them, ‘Yes, of course.’”

Hendriks’ teaching has focused on making sure Santos knows how to get ready and get ready in a hurry. He has mastered his routine, usually getting mentally prepared for a save situation in the seventh inning so he’s ready to go should the call come in the eighth or, more traditionally, to start the ninth. He’s attempted to pass that on to Santos, who he said has embraced what he’s shared. Santos echoed that advice when asked what his conversations with Hendriks have been like, so at least he’s paying attention.

And indeed such a “drop of a hat” moment arrived Tuesday, when Grifol called on Santos for a five-out save stretching across the eighth and ninth innings after Luis Robert Jr.’s tie-breaking home run.

Santos’ preparation paid off. He only needed 16 pitches to lock down the win.

“That’s the good thing about Santos,” Grifol said. “Normally, for a save opportunity, he’ll take the ball, which makes him a good closer, a guy that will take the ball in a closing situation. … That’s the making of a great closer, a guy that, if there is a save opportunity, ‘I’m taking it no matter how I feel. I’ll get my opportunities to take three or four days off when we don’t have those opportunities, but as long as there is a game to be closed I’m going to take it.’”

Fans sometimes balk at the idea that the final three outs of a game are different from any of the other 24, often suggesting that the reliever with the best numbers get thrown into that spot, regardless of where they normally pitch. But baseball people will tell you over and over again that there’s something different about pitching in the ninth inning, that it takes a certain kind of mindset to shut the door.

Anyone who’s watched Hendriks pitch knows the difference between the type of pitcher who can thrive in that moment and the type who can’t.

Hendriks believes Santos can be the type who can not just handle the ninth but dominate there.

“It’s something that can really take him into the next stratosphere,” Hendriks said. “He’s got the stuff to be able to do it, and he’s got the mentality to be able to do it. That’s come from just the pure confidence he has in his stuff, especially now that he’s throwing strikes and taking his A-game stuff as soon as the bell rings.”

Being a closer, as Hendriks found out, is about being able to move on, and quickly, from the kind of night Santos had Wednesday. And in that regard, this might have been a nice learning opportunity for Santos, something the White Sox could have a good deal of for their younger players over the final weeks of a lost season.

Just don’t tell that to Grifol.

“Obviously, this is experience for him, but we’re not here to — it’s part of it, but that’s not how we approach the game. We approach the game to win it,” the South Side skipper said. “So after we settle down, we’re looking at it maybe a week down the road, yeah it’s good experience. But right now, I’m not looking at it like that, I’m looking at it as a loss that we had in the bag.

“It’s a tough loss, man. The toughest loss of the year, in my opinion.”

So really, it’s now, after things didn’t go well Wednesday, that the White Sox will find out if Santos has what it takes to keep closing.

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