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Tony La Russa wants White Sox to steer clear of closer controversy

Whether Liam Hendriks or Craig Kimbrel pitches the ninth inning on any given night will be a matter of availability, La Russa said.

Chicago White Sox v Milwaukee Brewers
“The day that they’re both available, it will be real clear, if we have the lead, who pitches the eighth and who pitches the ninth,” White Sox manager Tony La Russa said of Liam Hendriks and Craig Kimbrel.
John Fisher/Getty Images

There will be no closer controversy in Chicago, at least as far as manager Tony La Russa and his two All-Stars are concerned.

After Friday’s busy trade deadline that netted the White Sox all-time active saves leader Craig Kimbrel, the back end of the bullpen has gotten a little crowded. Heading into the game Saturday, Kimbrel had 23 saves and Liam Hendriks had 26.

Who gets the ninth inning on any given night will be a matter of availability, La Russa said. For example, after closing out the Sox’ win Friday against the Indians, Hendriks was ruled out for Saturday, leaving the ninth inning for Kimbrel.

“The day that they’re both available, it will be real clear, if we have the lead, who pitches the eighth and who pitches the ninth,” La Russa said. “It’s not going to be a quarterback controversy. It’s not going to be a closer controversy. It’s going to be: ‘Let’s get the outs and let’s get a win and let’s keep going forward.’ ”

The ability to finish a game with Michael Kopech, then one or both of Hendriks and Kimbrel already has inspired a nickname for the trio: the Ponytail Gang.

“Theirs are both way more impressive than mine,” Hendriks joked. “Mine is more of a man bun.”

During the last two months of the season and into the playoffs, whether that nickname sticks and the good times continue might depend on how the guys in the bullpen, especially Hendriks and Kimbrel, respond to having somewhat fluid roles.

On that front, La Russa said he knows the keys to it all working are the bullpen depth and each pitcher’s willingness to take the ball whenever his turn comes.

“Whatever way it’s called down there, I’m just waiting for the phone to ring, and whenever they call my name, I’ll be ready to go, and that’s what it takes,” Hendriks said. “We have no egos out there. There’s no one who’s going to be [ticked] off about a diminished role or stuff like that. I don’t think any of us care. We just want to win.”

Balancing a loaded bullpen isn’t new to playoff teams. Hendriks likened the Sox’ situation to the 2015 Royals’ bullpen when they had Kelvin Herrera, Wade Davis and Greg Holland. In 2016, the Cubs bumped Hector Rondon from the closer role when they traded for Aroldis Chapman at the deadline.

Kimbrel has had some recent experience pitching in a slightly different role. He signed with the Cubs in 2019 to be their closer, but poor performances cost him his job until he earned it back this season.

Having thrown innings besides the ninth last year has made him more open to heading to the mound whenever he’s called upon. Like Hendriks, he said there’s no ego about job titles.

“I think that’s what’s going to make this group work and make it successful,” Kimbrel said. “Obviously, we know what situation this is and what it looks like. But we also understand we’ve got jobs to do, and we can’t let stuff like that get in the way of what our job is. And that’s to win ballgames and get this team where it needs to be.”

Part of the reason the Sox went after Kimbrel was to help ensure that their bullpen arms stay healthy, especially for what they hope will be a lengthy playoff run this fall. Hence La Russa’s plan for turning to Hendriks or Kimbrel depending on availability and perhaps not using them in the same game until October.

“My job is to come here and do whatever I need to do to help this team win and get to the playoffs,” Kimbrel said. “I’m going to be closing games; I’m going to be throwing in the eighth inning; I’m going to be doing whatever I need to do.”