Column: Liam Hendriks’ return offers the Chicago White Sox a brief reprieve from nonstop fan angst

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Whether the long-anticipated return of Liam Hendriks provides the Chicago White Sox with the jolt they desperately need to get back to respectability won’t be known for a while.

A closer can do only so much, after all, unless the ball is in his hands with a lead. If Hendriks doesn’t get save opportunities, he can’t do much to change the direction of the Sox, other than provide inspiration for his teammates who watched his journey back from non-Hodgkin lymphoma.

But the plight of the Sox was on the back burner Monday night at Sox Park. The Memorial Day game against the Los Angeles Angels seemed secondary to Hendriks’ first appearance this season in a Sox uniform, giving general manager Rick Hahn and the players a temporary reprieve from the nonstop fan angst that built up over the first two months.

LiamFest, the celebration of Hendriks’ comeback from cancer, was observed before and during the game Monday — Hendriks’ first on an active major-league roster since he was diagnosed with Stage 4 cancer in January.

Normalcy was one of the keys to recovery, and Hendriks’ goal was to return to the baseball grind that he excelled in, to be around his teammates in good times and bad.

His wife, Kristi, said Monday that “baseball was really Liam’s saving grace” during his battle with cancer.

“You guys know Liam,” she said. “He’s a goofy, random man and he’s weird, and he felt like he was part of his people again. I think if he didn’t have baseball, his recovery would’ve been very different.”

Hendriks has often said he’s at his best when he pitches with anger, but all the tributes he received in Charlotte when he took the mound during his minor-league rehab stint forced him to change his style, at least for once.

“He’s going to have a moment out there when he’s in shock that so many people are on his side,” Kristi said. “All I kept saying to him the whole time was: ‘Do you see how loved you are? You are loved by fans, your teammates, the community, the city of Chicago, the cities you played for previously are supporting you, so you’re going to have to find aggression in a different way.’

“So I think he’s more in an aggressive way of (saying): ‘F cancer. People shouldn’t have to go through this anymore. We should find a cure.’ And I think he’s going to find his hunger of aggression there.”

Hendriks entered to a prolonged ovation in the eighth inning and took a long look around the ballpark before he threw his first pitch. The Angels scored a pair of runs off Hendriks in a 27-pitch outing in which he had trouble locating his slider and four-seam fastball.

The second run scored on a Mike Trout liner that Tim Anderson gloved but couldn’t reel in. But Hendriks retired Shohei Ohtani on a 95 mph fastball to escape further damage and left to another ovation.

Once Hendriks has pitched a few games and his presence in the bullpen has been normalized, the fate of this Sox core will once again be the topic of the day for Hahn and manager Pedro Grifol.

Hahn acknowledged that probability Monday when he reiterated his belief in the team for the umpteenth time since 2022 while adding a caveat: Things can change if the team doesn’t get on a roll.

“That’s the job,” he said. “Ultimately you have to make the decisions about who you are (on) what your record says you are, and you need to prepare the organization for the future the best way you can. That doesn’t have to be on Memorial Day, so we still have a little time to get this team playing up to the expectations level of all of us in the front office and clubhouse.

“But if that doesn’t happen, it’s the responsibility of all of us in the front office to realize where objectively we’re at and what’s best for the club going forward. Again, we’re not at that date yet, but we know it’s a possibility.”

Hahn wouldn’t specify what might happen, and there really was no need to. At this point everyone knows exactly what’s at stake.

Either the Sox start winning soon, or the vaunted rebuild that began after the 2016 season and peaked with the “Field of Dreams” game win over the New York Yankees on Aug. 12, 2021, will be labeled a bust, forcing the front office to make substantial changes to the roster.

Losing Hendriks before the season certainly was a huge blow to the Sox, but they could’ve recovered had someone stepped up and filled the role. The Sox had veterans Kendall Graveman and Joe Kelly to choose from along with reliable setup man Reynaldo López.

But Grifol said at the start of spring training in Glendale, Ariz., the team would not replace Hendriks.

“Absolutely not,” he said. “That’s not how we’re going to run it.”

Instead the Sox went with whichever reliever fit into the so-called late-inning “pocket” Grifol felt that pitcher was best suited for. The Sox bullpen had posted only 10 saves entering Monday, more than only three other teams: the Kansas City Royals (8), Chicago Cubs (6) and Oakland Athletics (4). The Sox also had 10 blown saves, ninth-most in the majors, while ranking 29th with a 5.17 bullpen ERA, ahead of only the A’s 6.50.

You can’t blame all of that on the absence of Hendriks, though it was obviously a factor.

“You never want to lose an All Star at any position, and losing Liam was certainly a blow,” Hahn said. “I do think the bullpen, for the most part, has performed as a strength, or at least certainly has over stretches. Would we have been better throughout the season without losing anyone to injury? Sure, but every team suffers from that, and we can’t use that as an excuse.”

The Sox played a video tribute to Hendriks before the game, and he received his first standing ovation. Kristi said the Sox-created video featuring his teammates welcoming him back made him cry Sunday night when he watched it on Twitter.

“He has not cried on this journey at all,” she said. “Even when he rang the bell (to end his chemotherapy treatment), he got a little choked up. But when he saw his teammates were really rooting for him and they were so excited he was back, he got very emotional.”

Funny, a man who built his career on saving games was now being saved by the game itself.

In a season in which hope has been hard to find on the South Side, the return of a healthy Hendriks made everyone feel a little better.