White Sox need Liam Hendriks, bullpen to clean up early mess

DETROIT — Hey, guess what, everybody?

The White Sox are one game into the season, and already alarm bells are clanging like there’s no tomorrow. Code red! This is not a drill.

How is a team supposed to coast to another division championship when all its pitchers are busy being hurt or blowing leads or watching the other team mob ex-Cub Javy Baez?

Not to be melodramatic, but has anybody tested the Emergency Broadcast System? After seeing a three-run Opening Day lead evaporate against the Tigers — who eventually won 5-4 on Baez’s fly ball over A.J. Pollock’s glove and off the wall in the ninth — the Sox have a crisis on their hands.

Or do they?

“I didn’t think he got it that well, but it just kept going,” Hendriks said of Baez’s high fly, which Pollock could’ve caught and which scored Austin Meadows from third. “It is what it is. We work toward [Saturday] and now we go 161-1.

Wow, 161-1 sounds great. Then again, it sounded great a year ago when Sox relievers talked about going 90-0 and looked great when they wore T-shirts boasting “The ‘Pen Is Mighty.”

“I don’t expect us to lose a game if we’re leading after the fifth inning,” lefty Aaron Bummer said then.

You won’t believe this, but it didn’t work out that way. The Sox bullpen ended up struggling early before settling somewhere in between top-notch and middle-of-the-road.

But by the looks of things already, this season is going to challenge and stress the bullpen far more. What, you want evidence to back up that claim? No problem, although it’s hard to know where to begin.

First, the starters: Lance Lynn, who probably would’ve gotten the ball Friday instead of Lucas Giolito if he were healthy, likely will be out a couple of months after undergoing right knee surgery. Giolito is a question mark after leaving the opener four scoreless innings because of tightness in his abdomen. Michael Kopech isn’t close to fully stretched out yet, and who knows if Dallas Keuchel has a bounce-back season in him after such a disappointing 2021?

The bullpen already was going to need to do heavier-than-usual lifting even before Garrett Crochet was shut down for Tommy John surgery and Ryan Burr went on the injured list. Have you heard newcomer Joe Kelly is weeks away from being ready to pitch? Of course you have. Don’t you miss Craig Kimbrel like crazy? Of course you don’t. But you might sooner than you think.

So many relief innings coming right up, so little in the way of relievers the Sox know for sure they can count on.

“It’s the way it’s going to be,” manager Tony La Russa said. “But the biggest thing is how many times can you bring them back? We put a lot into that game. So [there are] a couple of guys who won’t pitch [Saturday].”

The Sox might be able to hit their way through a stretch of pitching troubles, but what if the bats don’t sizzle from the get-go? April could get messier than expected.

“That’s what we’re here for,” Hendriks said. “We’re the janitors. We come in and clean up everybody else’s crap. That’s our job right now. We need to just suck it up and [endure] whatever we need to get into a situation where the starters will pick us up later in the year.”

But what a rough beginning. With the Sox ahead 3-0 in the sixth, Kyle Crick, fresh off a terrific spring, hit Robbie Grossman with a pitch and walked Austin Meadows. One out later, free-agent prize Kendall Graveman made his Sox debut and gave up a run-scoring single to Jeimer Candelario. A second run would’ve scored if Candelario hadn’t been ruled out for runner’s interference on Miguel Cabrera’s ground ball.

In the eighth, with one out and Bummer in, Grossman singled, Meadows walked and Baez singled to load the bases. Cabrera eventually tied it off Hendriks with a two-out, two-run hit on the first pitch.

“Exactly where I wanted it,” Hendriks said, “up and in off the plate, and he broke his bat and it just landed in there.”

Eric Haase’s homer in the ninth — on Hendriks’ eighth straight fastball in a gripping confrontation — just landed in the bleachers in left to tie it, setting the table for a Meadows triple and Baez’s heroics.

“I’ve just got to make better pitches,” Hendriks said. “I’ve got to make better pitch selection. And that’s something that needs to happen really quickly.”

Is that a warning siren in the distance? Is the bunker stocked with provisions? Oh, no!

Or maybe the Sox just had a really bad first day at work. We’ll see about that.

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