But with a club that has blown 18 saves and lost a Major League-high 22 games in the opponent's last at-bat, McClendon dropped Smith back into a setup role Sunday and the rookie induced four straight ground-ball outs. Then came Wilhelmsen, who breezed through a 1-2-3 ninth.
It was Wilhelmsen's third save of the season, but the first two came in extra innings when he was more of a last-man standing. This time, McClendon told both Wilhelmsen and Smith before the game that he'd be doing some role reversal if things played out as they did with a late lead.
"It always feels good to get out there. The ninth is great," said Wilhelmsen, who hadn't recorded a straight ninth-inning save since July 28, 2013. "I've been there before and obviously once you get a little taste, that's something you strive to get back at. He told me before the game that if it comes down to it, I'm the guy."
What that means going forward remains to be seen.
"We had better results today," McClendon said. "We'll see. Right now we're going to match up the best way we can and put guys in the best position you possibly can for them to succeed. It's no different. We just thought that was the best way to go [today]."
Smith, who has a 5.42 ERA over 22 games since the start of July, was back to his old effective self in mowing down the heart of the White Sox lineup in order in the setup situation, after entering with two out in the seventh.
"It's always good to bounce back," said Smith, who blew a two-run lead in the ninth in Saturday's 6-3, 10-inning loss. "I think any pitcher, after they struggle, they want to get back out there as soon as they can to erase what happened the night before. It was good to get out there and have a quality outing."
Smith said he's uncertain what happens next.
"I'm just taking it day-by-day," said the 25-year-old Texan. "He just told me to be ready earlier today, giving me maybe a mental break from the ninth inning, so that's where we're at right now. He said it's not a lack of confidence in you or anything, I still want you to go out and pitch like you're the guy. He thinks I am, so that's what I want to do."
Wilhelmsen, who has been in Smith's shoes before, said it was a big step for the youngster.
"It's huge," Wilhelmsen said. "It's huge for him and it's huge for the team. Obviously it's been a bit of a struggle throughout this year, but we still know we're really good. It's just nice to see a bounce back like that. That's what you have to have in this game, especially as a reliever. There's a good chance you're going to be out there the next day and you have to flick it off."
And Wilhelmsen sounded more than ready to handle the ninth-inning role if asked in the future.
"You try to just stay the same," he said. "I've been there before, so it wasn't like my heart was racing or anything. You just try to get strike one and get the first out and go on from there."