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Red Sox’s Hendriks moves slowly but confidently back from Tommy John: ‘I don’t baby it’

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BOSTON — Liam Hendriks had his pants down as he spoke. His undershorts were on, but his uniform was down to his knees. He’d just thrown his first bullpen of the year last Wednesday, a momentous step forward for any pitcher returning from Tommy John surgery. Yet he stood in the Boston Red Sox clubhouse refusing to treat the occasion as serious, or even notable.

How did his arm feel?

“Attached,” he said.

Was there some added adrenaline getting on a mound?

“Not really,” he answered.

What stood out about the rehab process?

“How boring it is,” Hendriks deadpanned.

None of this came across as dismissive. It was played for laughs, a break from the monotony for Hendriks, his teammates, and even the gathered reporters. He was speaking to a full scrum with TV cameras and microphones, all because of a 15-pitch bullpen three hours before game time. Give Hendriks credit for not rolling his eyes. He didn’t travel from Australia, through years of baseball obscurity and rounds of cancer treatment to celebrate a few pregame fastballs in the bullpen.

“I don’t know whether the trainers love me or want to kill me,” Hendriks said. “Every day is a struggle telling them to let me do more and having them try to hold me back into a normal stratosphere.

“Which sucks.”

He’s longing for moments of greater consequence and is confident they’re coming.


Liam Hendriks has faced intense physical and mental challenges over the past 20 months but has managed to maintain a sense of humor about it all. (Barry Chin / The Boston Globe via Getty Images)

There are numbers to help tell every baseball story and Hendriks’ career is told through his three All-Star Games, two Reliever of the Year awards, and 116 career saves. His backstory is chronicled through the 14 teams and six major-league organizations that saw him come and go before anyone trusted him with the ninth inning. He’s the one and only graduate of Australia’s Sacred Heart College to ever play in the majors, and he was designated for assignment four times and traded three more before most people had ever heard of him. Yet, here he is, a survivor in more ways than one.

Hendriks’ past 20 months have been all about four rounds of chemotherapy, a six-game rehab assignment in the minors weeks later, and his emotional big-league return last May. He had four good outings in June before season-ending Tommy John surgery in August and then entered free agency.

“Theoretically, I’ve got a new elbow,” Hendriks said this spring. “So, I’ve got another 10 (years) in me.”

Now 35 years old, Hendriks is hellbent on proving himself yet again. He signed a two-year deal with the Red Sox, in part, because they promised him two things: They believed he could pitch this season, and they wanted him to spend most of his rehab process with the big-league team. So, that’s what Hendriks has been doing. On the road, at home, throughout spring training. He hasn’t been rehabbing at some fancy, far-flung facility; he’s been throwing on the field, sitting at his corner locker, and making jokes on the bullpen bench. Cancer treatment kept him away from people for far too long last year. But he does not wallow. He does not question.

go-deeper

GO DEEPER

Inside the Red Sox trainer’s room with Lucas Giolito and Liam Hendriks

“I’ve never been a big ‘why me’ person,” Hendriks said. “I think it was inevitable that I was going to have something to do with my elbow. Unfortunately, it was in the same year that I dealt with a lot of other things, but it is what it is. There’s nothing I can do to change it. All I can do is show up to the park every day with a positive attitude and hopefully rub off on some of the younger guys here.”

When Hendriks reported to Red Sox camp, he’d been given a target of 64 mph, as in, a pitcher who typically throws a 95-mph fastball should be throwing roughly 64 mph when he’s seven months out from Tommy John surgery. In his early days of spring training, though — “My surgeon is probably not going to be happy about this,” Hendriks said — he was throwing in the mid-70s.

“Not consistently!” Hendriks clarified. “Consistently low 70s. But it’s still, the jump from where I was the time before that was a little too high. … A couple of times I was a little too strong in the paint. But I prefer to go too far than not do enough.”

Such is the Liam Hendriks Experience. Numbers don’t do justice to what he brings on the mound and off the field. He is a vein-bulging, obscenity-screaming, trash-talking wildman, but also a Lego-building, caregiving, joke-making teddy bear.

Within those extremes, a cancer diagnosis in December of 2022 was a shock. Stage 4 non-Hodgkin lymphoma. Doctors told Hendriks to expect six rounds of chemotherapy. He’s proud of the fact he needed only four. He can’t remember the exact date his last round started, only that it was the Chicago White Sox’s home opener, and he was supposed to be in their bullpen, not in some hospital. He had a bone marrow biopsy at the end of April and began a rehab assignment the first week of May.

His elbow lasted a little more than a month after that.

The truth is, Hendriks knew his elbow was in trouble long before it popped. He’d first learned of a small tear in his UCL in 2008. He’d pitched for more than a decade without snapping it, but as he ramped up in his return following cancer treatment — after a full six months off — he could tell it wasn’t right.

“He didn’t care,” former White Sox teammate and current Red Sox teammate Lucas Giolito said. “A lot of guys would be like, ‘Oh, this hurts,’ and in the training room or whatever. He was like, ‘I’m just going to go until it breaks.’”

Was there ever any thought of protecting it after going through so much to get back on the mound and a club option looming?

“No. F— no,” Hendriks said. “I don’t baby it.”

Hendriks said he’s come to believe he’s most susceptible to injury when he holds back.

“The elbow was gone no matter what,” he said. “So, I’m not sitting there to try to rehab another six weeks potentially and not come back. If it goes, it goes. If it doesn’t, it doesn’t. I was pretty sure it was already done, but I was holding out hope that it was maybe a little (bit) of scar tissue, and if that snaps off at the right time, I’ll be fine. It wasn’t that.”

This offseason, the White Sox declined a $15 million club option, making Hendriks a free agent. It’s not unusual for pitchers recovering from Tommy John surgery to sign two-year deals with an eye toward truly contributing in that second year. When Hendriks talked to interested teams this winter, though, he clarified that it wasn’t a 2025 negotiation.

“We made it very abundantly clear that if you’re coming in with that attitude, it’s a no-go,” Hendriks said. “There were some teams that reached out and just faded away straight from there.”

Hendriks expects to be pitching for the Red Sox this August. He signed a two-year deal that guarantees him $10 million but includes a $12 million mutual option for 2026. By the time he signed, Hendriks had begun playing catch with his physical therapist, and Hendriks said he was less worried about his elbow and more worried about spiking a throw to a non-baseball player. But Hendriks hit his partner in the chest, and the instant feedback was that Hendriks wasn’t “muscly,” meaning he was staying loose and not getting tense. The motion was as natural as ever.

When Hendriks talks about limits, he talks only about breaking them. From Australia to the All-Star Game. From being on waivers to signing long-term contracts. From Stage 4 cancer to a faster-than-expected recovery. From Tommy John surgery to having too much oomph on his fastball in spring training. Now a 15-pitch bullpen and a tongue-in-cheek miniature press conference.

Does the light at the end of a Tommy John tunnel look different than the light at the end of a cancer tunnel?

“Ehh, in my mind, it’s the same,” Hendriks said in spring training. “There’s still an end goal. There’s still a goal that I need to get back from. It’s just a little bit more of a slow-moving process.”

Hendriks doesn’t have a sit-back-and-wait personality, and he’s had to do exactly that for much of the past year and a half. He’s wired to pitch the ninth. Check with him again when that finally happens.

“It’s not that (rehab) is long. I can handle long,” Hendriks said. “I can’t handle slow. And it’s the slowness that’s really pissing me off.”

(Top photo of Hendriks in May 2024: Maddie Malhotra / Boston Red Sox/Getty Images)



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