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Yeah, Lance Lynn is back.
Whether it was seeing the self-proclaimed “Big Bastard” back on the mound, seeing his fiery competitive nature on display in a dugout shouting match with Joe McEwing or reading his trademark postgame humor on Twitter, there’s no doubt that the long wait for White Sox to have the leader of their pitching staff back is over.
Fortunately for the White Sox, Lynn’s absence was not unbearable, the vast majority of the starts made without him accounting for what’s been a pretty strong rotation. Lucas Giolito, Dylan Cease and Michael Kopech have mostly been great – some more recent results aside – and Johnny Cueto has turned out to be a heck of a find, making Dallas Keuchel expendable.
But Lynn does so much for this group that doesn’t even show up in the numbers that made him the third-place finisher in last year’s Cy Young vote that counting him among their active pitchers is a big deal for a White Sox team looking to drag itself out of a disappointing start to a season with championship expectations. Whether it’s Rick Hahn, Tony La Russa, Tim Anderson or any other person counting 35th and Shields as their work address, they see full strength as a key to righting the ship.
Those feelings of getting closer to full strength, though, didn’t last long before the White Sox were faced with more upsetting injury news. Lynn took the mound Monday night in Detroit, and before the game was over, one of the team’s hottest hitters, Jake Burger, was out of the game after being hit in the hand with a pitch. Hours before the series’ second game got underway, Liam Hendriks, the team’s All-Star closer, was on the injured list.
In fact, the last few days have brought so many roster moves for this team, particularly involving members of the pitching staff, that it was a chore to figure out who was even available in the bullpen Monday night.
Hendriks joined a bevy of key White Sox contributors on the IL. Anderson is there with a groin strain, though he started a rehab assignment Tuesday and should be back relatively soon. Eloy Jiménez has missed a boatload of time for the second straight season, his rehab work currently on pause as he learns to live with the aftereffects of the surgery that repaired a torn ligament behind his knee. Joe Kelly came off the injured list in time to take Hendriks’ spot on the active roster Tuesday. Aaron Bummer is still there, though, as is Yasmani Grandal.
All that is on top of Garrett Crochet, of course, being out for the year while recovering from Tommy John surgery. That was the fear when Hendriks’ injury was reported as being a forearm strain, the kind of thing that can often precede that infamous procedure. The word from Hahn before Tuesday’s game, per the Sun-Times, was a three-week absence for one of baseball’s best ninth-inning men. As Hahn is always quick to remind, those timelines are typically nothing more than educated estimates, and he made sure to say it wasn’t an exact timetable.
Burger, by the way, is not on the IL but sidelined for the remainder of the team’s set in Michigan, again per the Sun-Times, the White Sox hoping that three straight days of healing will have the young bopper ready for this weekend’s trio of contests in Houston.
Got all that?
As fans have zeroed in on La Russa as the main source of their frustration with a wildly underperforming roster, they’ve tired of hearing the “wait until this group is at full strength” line. But there’s no doubting how big a storyline all those injuries have been this season.
That’s baseball, of course, and La Russa will be the first to refuse to whine about injuries, citing it as something all teams have to deal with, something for which no other team will extend sympathy. Whether or not all the rest have to deal with this number of injuries to such important players is for someone with a whole lot of time on their hands to figure out. But yes, the main part of baseball’s annual survival of the fittest is “fit,” and the teams left standing at season’s end either experience relative good fortune or are able to weather all the bad fortune.
The latter is what the White Sox did in 2021. Jiménez, Grandal and Luis Robert – not to mention Nick Madrigal, the starting second baseman who was traded at the deadline – all missed months. That’s half the starting lineup. But the White Sox got big contributions from fill-ins like Brian Goodwin, Billy Hamilton, Jake Lamb and Yermín Mercedes, allowing them to survive those absences and win the AL Central crown in a runaway.
That’s not happening for the White Sox this season, at least not frequently enough, and even the fill-in who looked to be stepping into a supporting role as a part-time savior, Burger, is now part of the team’s rash of injuries.
Heck, this is the Tune Squad bench at this point, folks.
What’s next? Newman getting an inning of relief?
The bullpen, effective all while being a favorite target of fans criticizing Hahn’s offseason plan, has arguably suffered the most. For whatever reason, plenty have been upset that the White Sox spent what they did to bring in proven relief aces like Hendriks, Kelly and Kendall Graveman the last two offseasons. (Bummer’s contract extension from before the start of the 2020 season can count toward that total, too.) And thanks to some horrid luck, the team has been without multiple of its back-end weapons for basically the entirety of the season to this point. Crochet hasn’t pitched at all and won’t. Kelly and Bummer have each been on the IL twice. Hendriks is projected to miss much of the next month’s worth of games.
And so in a tight game Monday, it was a bizarre parade of pitchers after Lynn couldn’t finish five innings in his 2022 debut: Kyle Crick, Bennett Sousa, Tanner Banks and Graveman. Not the group you would have had protecting a narrow lead when the season began.
But a lot has been asked of this bullpen, through little fault of its own. The shortened spring had the starting pitchers on a shorter-than-usual workload, meaning more outs required from relief arms in the early going. And a mostly miserable offense has produced tiny run totals and close contests, even when the starting pitching has shut down the opposition. It’s been a lot of high stress innings.
And injuries to the main guys have forced the supporting players into more featured roles time and time again, to various results. Banks, Sousa, Crick, José Ruiz and Matt Foster have all had their impressive moments this season. They also entered Tuesday’s game – before which Sousa was sent to the minors – with a combined 5.12 ERA. Ryan Burr pitched nine innings this season; he was released Monday.
Now that same group will be without Hendriks. It’s still without Bummer. It’s still without Crochet. So many of those hurlers with a mixed bag of a 2022 season will be called on in front of Kelly and Graveman. And this is without even mentioning the usage plans a number of these guys are on so the White Sox can have the strongest bullpen possible for the relief-heavy month of October.
Obviously, the way the White Sox have played for much of the season to this point, October is a big “if” at the moment. But it’s still this team’s goal. A sure, if slow, return to health was one reason to believe that a turnaround was possible and that talk of an October spent watching from the couch was still premature.
But every time an injured star comes back, another one hits the IL. That’s how it’s seemed for these White Sox, who can’t catch a break.
The best injury news of the last few days was that Michael Kopech was feeling better after making just eight throws in Sunday’s loss. He might be able to pitch this weekend in Houston. And that counts as good news.
If the White Sox are going to muster a midseason rebirth, they’ll need the injury bug to fly away.
It just seems set on sticking around for the long haul.
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