Liam Hendriks walked to the bullpen before the fifth inning Monday. Fans held up letters in the left-field bleachers that spelled, “TEAM LIAM.”
Hendriks tipped his hat as he received a thunderous standing ovation.
Hendriks announced in January he was diagnosed with non-Hodgkin lymphoma. He was back in a big-league game Monday, pitching the eighth inning of a 6-4 loss to the Los Angeles Angels in front of 23,599 at Guaranteed Rate Field.
Hendriks allowed two runs on three hits with one walk. But the stats were a small part of the remarkable story.
“It was great being back out there,” Hendriks said. “Getting back, putting cleats on, running out, doing all that. I felt good, I felt strong, I felt comfortable out there.
“Unfortunately for me I wasn’t able to get the two-strike pitch where I wanted to. That was the bit for (Monday). It was get ahead, generally, and then struggle to put them away.
“There were some positives from a purely baseball aspect, but there were definitely some things to work on. Get back, be available and be ready to go tomorrow.”
Kristi Hendriks knew before her husband started chemotherapy that he would return to the mound for the Sox.
“That was his saving grace,” Kristi said. “He said: ‘I’m going to play again if it takes me four rounds, if it takes me six rounds, if it goes more, if it goes less. I’m just going to do that because I need to do that for myself.’
“And then when all the fan support got behind him, it was 100% a moment of ‘I’m doing this for the city of Chicago.’”
The fans showed that appreciation with a pair of long ovations, the second coming when he entered the game.
“I want to thank everyone who stood up and clapped,” Hendriks said. “It definitely meant a lot both times, when I was walking out to the bullpen and coming into the game. I want to thank Matt Thaiss (the first batter he faced) for stepping out and giving me time to go about doing that. I really appreciate that. That was a huge sign of respect and I really appreciate that.
“Not so much the 104.8 off the bat (for a single), but other than that, it’s fine.”
The crowd chanted “Liam!” when he entered as members of the Sox and Angels clapped.
“I saw (the Angels clapping) and then quickly tried to glance away,” Hendriks said. “As I said in Gwinnett (during a rehab assignment with Triple-A Charlotte), it’s great and I truly appreciate it and everything. But it’s very hard to get into my right frame of mind knowing that they’re actually good people. So I have to trick myself into thinking that they’re terrible and don’t deserve to get anything.
“But that’s just the way I pitch and the way I am. You’re always looking for a slight, looking for an advantage, looking for a chip on your shoulder of what they can do. No, I’m very appreciative.”
Hendriks allowed the single to Thaiss, who stole second and advanced to third when Gio Urshela grounded out to first. After Jared Walsh walked, Zach Neto followed with a sacrifice fly to right.
Mickey Moniak’s bloop double to left gave the Angels runners on second and third. Mike Trout hit a liner to shortstop Tim Anderson, who almost made a tremendous leaping catch. A run scored on the infield hit.
Shohei Ohtani hit a grounder to Anderson, who stepped on second for the final out. Hendriks received another ovation as he walked back to the dugout.
“(Monday) was, from a pure stuff point of view, the best I’ve felt the entire time,” he said. “Everything came out well. I just overcooked sliders, and that was the problem. I got a little too excited with my breaking stuff. Unfortunately, when I’m not quite locating as well as I want to, it takes its toll.”
Beyond the results, Hendriks said it was an emotional day.
“It was humbling walking out there and seeing the amount of people wearing my shirts and the amount of people having signs or flags,” he said. “The amount of people that were chanting when I came into the game. It was a very humbling and sobering moment.”
Before the game, Hendriks tipped his cap to the crowd and teared up during a ceremony that recognized the more than $100,000 raised through the sale of “Close Out Cancer” T-shirts. The shirts allowed fans to show support during his fight, with the net proceeds benefiting the Lymphoma Research Foundation.
Hendriks has been an inspiration throughout the organization.
“It’s truly a testament to his hard work and commitment the fact that we’re even having this conversation in May,” general manager Rick Hahn said before Monday’s game. “When we got the initial prognosis, I don’t think anyone would have been shocked if the response to a Stage 4 lymphoma diagnosis was we weren’t going to see the guy pitch this year. Or if we initially announced he’s going to be gone till at least the All-Star break, I don’t think anyone would have batted an eye with that timeline.
“But Liam and his wife, Kristi, from the start were committed to getting back as quickly as humanly possible.”
That return became official Monday.
“I think the May timeline that he had in his own mind throughout was a bit of a motivator for him,” Hahn said, “and something, I think, could hopefully serve as a motivator to others who are suffering through similar diagnoses. Truly a remarkable accomplishment by Liam and by Kristi and by all those involved in the rehabilitation to getting him back.”
Hendriks did some baseball work during spring training while undergoing treatment.
“I was there with him in Arizona, kind of through the buildup, through a lot of the chemo treatments,” reliever Garrett Crochet said. “For him to be where he is now, it’s just awesome to witness.”
Hendriks announced April 20 that he was cancer-free. After a stint with Charlotte and three live batting practice sessions with the Sox, he was once again available out of the bullpen.
“He was very clear that part of his motivation was to get back as quickly as possible, and he didn’t want to rule out the first two months of the season,” Hahn said. “He was able to do so much while getting treatment — it did hit him for a few days, as it would anybody — but the fact that he was able to maintain somewhat of a throwing schedule and was occasionally off a mound and was able to long toss and be by the complex, he never really atrophied his base down all the way to zero.
“And that allowed him to come back, once he was cleared, over the course of five or six weeks, which is awfully remarkable.”
The Sox have a three-time All-Star back. But that’s not all.
“This is bigger than baseball,” manager Pedro Grifol said. “This is about life and the diagnosis and the comeback and how he did it. And how good he was prior to and how good he’s going to be afterward.”
Kristi said Liam was excited Monday morning.
“Going back to (Sunday) night, he watched the video produced by the White Sox … where everyone was saying, ‘Welcome back, Liam,’ and he cried,” she said. “And he has not cried in this journey at all. Even when he rang the bell (after finishing chemotherapy), he got a little choked up. But when he saw that his teammates were really rooting for him and they were so excited he was back, he got very emotional.
“(Monday) he was excited and he was nervous. I take nervous as a really good competitive spirit. You are really only nervous when you care about something. So I’m excited for him.”
And it was a day they — and the game — won’t forget.
“The outpouring of love not only online and in social media but in person has been huge,” Liam Hendriks said. “I want to thank the city of Chicago for embracing us in this way, and hopefully we have and can still continue to move forward and represent this city well.”