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Liam Hendriks’ first week back from cancer ends with him looking a lot more like Liam Hendriks

Vinnie Duber Avatar
June 5, 2023

“It’s been an emotional week,” Liam Hendriks said, not even seven full days removed from his first outing of the season, which came a mere 45 days after he concluded chemotherapy treatments.

It was an obvious understatement. After all, this is the guy known for screaming, shouting, swearing, jumping and fist-pumping. This is the guy who puts his emotions out there for everyone to see — and unleashes them more often than not after shutting down an opposing team.

The White Sox didn’t exactly get the guy they’re used to in that first outing of the season, Hendriks giving up a pair of runs to the Angels last Monday night. But after a 1-2-3 outing Saturday, he went 1-2-3 again Sunday, this time pitching in his customary ninth-inning spot and coincidentally earning a win after preserving a tie, thanks to Jake Burger’s walk-off grand slam in the bottom of the frame.

This was more like vintage Hendriks, the closer who the White Sox gave that big-money free-agent deal several winters ago and who’s lived up to that contract, making back-to-back All-Star teams in his first two years in a White Sox uniform. Sunday, Hendriks struck out two Tigers hitters and rocketed off the mound after the second, an inning-ender, doing the whole screaming fist-pump thing.

Oh, and it all came on National Cancer Survivors Day. How about that?

“It’s one of those scripts,” Hendriks said. “My wife, today, she said, ‘Today you’ll get your first win on National Cancer Survivors Day.’ And that’s one thing that’s pretty special.

“As soon as you get diagnosed, you are considered a survivor. You’ve lived through this. Hopefully I can continue moving forward and continue … doing the right thing on the field and give some people some hope to continue fighting.”

Hendriks’ tenure as an inspirational figure is already well underway, and it wouldn’t be surprising to see the applause he received from the Angels in his season debut replicated by teams across the league as Hendriks hits the road for his first big league games away from the South Side this season. The White Sox head to famously vocal New York to take on the Yankees this week, and Hendriks is ready for whatever reception he receives, already planning on how to use it as motivation.

But what he’s most ready for is getting back to being Liam Hendriks.

As mentioned, the first outing didn’t go great, and as good as a 1-2-3 second outing seemed to be, he made it clear to reporters Saturday that his seventh-inning appearance against the Tigers wasn’t “perfect,” by his standards, merely “clean.”

You can call it splitting hairs, but remember that Hendriks’ rehab work was extended after he didn’t feel he was getting the job done in a handful of outings with Triple-A Charlotte. What was expected to possibly be a somewhat quick stint in the minors before a big league return turned into a “wait and see” approach, with Pedro Grifol providing fresh updates on a daily basis.

Remember, too, what Hendriks said after that debut last Monday.

“I’ll never be OK with mediocrity,” he said, “I’ll never be OK with not being at the back end of the bullpen. But in saying that, I need to earn it. I don’t want handouts. I need to work. I need to earn it. The guys have been throwing well out there. But at the end of the day, that’s mine. But as I said, I need to earn it. There’s no freebies, there’s no handouts. I will get there, and I will earn it myself.”

Indeed, Hendriks has yet to resume his typical role as the team’s closer, yet to appear in a save situation over his first week back on a big league mound. He’s closer to closing, sure, and finally pitching on back-to-back days and finally pitching in a high-leverage situation in the ninth inning Sunday showed it. We’ll see if this week’s trip to The Bronx, or a return home for a weekend series with the Marlins, yields any such opportunities.

But to go back to the story during Hendriks’ rehab work, it was about how he was feeling.

After this weekend, he’s feeling better, more like himself.

“Today was a lot better,” Hendriks said Sunday. “A lot of it is mental. I didn’t feel necessarily great body wise, but I think that’s one thing I’ve gotten used to over the last several years. You are not going to feel good, but you can convince yourself you are doing well. It’s all mental at this point. I’m happy to go out there and put us in a position where it’s a little bit normal.”

“He’ll probably be the first one to tell you that it’s huge (that he got the win) but more important is the fact that he’s starting to feel stronger and stronger,” Pedro Grifol said. “That’s his goal, just to build that work capacity up and be available everyday. That’s what he’s working for. I just saw him a little while ago, and he goes, ‘Hey, I’ll be down tomorrow. I can’t go tomorrow, but I’ll go the next day.’”

Of course, when Hendriks had that exchange with Grifol, “tomorrow” was Monday, an off day for the White Sox.

Hardy har har.

That’s all part of Hendriks being back to normal, of course, him flashing his big personality inside the White Sox clubhouse, and that’s something he never stopped doing, according to teammates, even while undergoing those chemotherapy treatments during the spring.

Thankfully, the White Sox are not in dire need of Hendriks riding in to save their bullpen. The team’s relief corps has performed terrifically in recent weeks. After finishing April with the highest bullpen ERA in baseball (6.86), it’s posted a 2.96 mark since, the fifth-best in the game.

All that stellar relief work has allowed Grifol to give Hendriks the time he needs to get back to being one of the sport’s best ninth-inning men.

“The versatility that some of these guys have has allowed that,” Grifol said Sunday. “Between Kendall (Graveman) and (Keynan) Middleton and (Joe) Kelly and (Reynaldo López), we have enough to be able to give Liam a little time to get back to where he feels he needs to be to pitch that ninth inning.”

That time might be nearing an end after what Grifol referred to as the “adrenaline rush” of the ninth Sunday. Again, it will be dependent on the right situations presenting themselves, and the White Sox’ offense will surely have more to do with that than anything Hendriks can muster from the bullpen.

But the eye-catching emotions Hendriks showed Monday, when tears flowed during a pregame ceremony and deep breaths came during an ovation from fans, teammates and opponents alike, segued to the ones we’re far more used to seeing from No. 31: the screams, the shouts, the swears and the fist-pumps of a ninth inning dominated.

“It’s going to take two or three more innings, and then back to closing,” López told CHGO on Sunday. “But he looks good. He threw 97 (miles an hour) yesterday, and I was like, ‘Oh! He’s back!’”

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