Athletics

Why A's closer Liam Hendriks refuses to let himself feel comfortable

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AP

Why A's closer Liam Hendriks refuses to let himself feel comfortable

The A's closer job isn’t up for grabs. It belongs to Liam Hendriks.

That isn’t a fire take or dismissal of other relievers on a quality staff. There’s simply no position battle or thought of one, and rightfully so.

Hendriks was a 2019 All-Star, after all, a right-hander who can reach 96 mph and freeze foes with a "wicked sly-dah." He converted 25 saves for last year’s 97-win A’s team and was a “savior in that bullpen.”

That’s pitching coach Scott Emerson’s opinion, at least. The phrase was followed by more praise for the 31-year old Australian finally coming into his own over a long and winding professional career.

Emerson’s compliment ended with an unwavering vote of confidence.

“Liam has proven that he can get big outs with the game on the line,” Emerson said. “That’s our guy.”

Hendriks would’ve wanted to earmuff it for that last part.

He doesn’t believe he has a job title at this point, with no interest in hearing otherwise. He certainly doesn’t want to be known as, Liam Hendriks: All-Star closer. Definitely not in spring training.

“Oh God, no. I don’t see myself in that regard,” Hendriks said Wednesday. “I’ve told people even heading into this year that I don’t want anything given to me. I’m coming into camp trying to make the team. I’m here to prove I belong and prove that I can fill any role they need me to. I have no idea what my role will be next year, and I need that mindset. I don’t want to become complacent. If I come in assuming that I’ll be given something, even a roster spot, that’s when trouble sets in for me. That’s a sign I’m taking things for granted and I don’t want that. Ever.”

That’s Hendriks’ experience talking. You know his story well, the one where a scrappy right-hander with great stuff was designated for assignment five times but never gave up and finally reached the pinnacle of his profession.

Fellow A’s reliever Jake Diekman believes young players should commit Hendrik's experience to memory and lean on it during tough times trying to make it big.

“Any minor leaguer should look at [Liam] as an example,” Diekman said. “You’re going to get brought up and you could easily get sent back down even if it doesn’t seem warranted. He’s proof that you have to trust your ability and stick with it, because at some point it can all click.”

[RELATED: A's closer Hendriks can relate to Sharks' Jones struggling]

These inspirational, finally-make-it-big baseball stories are often about the convergence of talent and timing. Hendriks was in the midst of a season where he was borderline unhittable while A’s incumbent closer Blake Treinen struggled with injuries and performance. The A’s looked to Hendriks for help, providing save opportunities upon which he capitalized.

He plans to do that again in 2020 for a loaded Athletics squad with high expectations. He plans to earn and convert his chances and be even better than he was a year ago. There’s humility in his words but confidence in his stuff, his demeanor and his ability to persevere.

That last trait is vital and was ultimately learned by doing. Hendriks went through real highs and lows getting to this point, experiences that made him the person and pitcher he is today.

“I spent several years in the minor leagues, a lot more than some and a lot less than others,” Hendriks said. “You sit there and learn and struggle with certain things, but you need perseverance to get through them. There were multiple years where I thought I played well and deserved to move up to the next level and it didn’t happen. It was a humbling experience that taught me to stop worrying about what everyone else does or focus solely on getting called up. Life isn’t always direct or easy or straight forward. You just have to keep on fighting.”

Former Astro Evan Gattis takes shot at Mike Fiers, lazily backtracks

Former Astro Evan Gattis takes shot at Mike Fiers, lazily backtracks

A's starter Mike Fiers caused a storm this offseason when he blew the whistle on the Houston Astros' sign-stealing scandal.

Fiers, who played for the Astros during their 2017 World Series-winning season in which they used technology to steal signs, has been almost universally praised as a hero for bringing the scandal to light.

But one of his former teammates apparently isn't happy Fiers pulled back the curtain on the Astros' trash-can banging ways.

After Gattis' posting caused a stir, the former Astro backtracked, claiming he has no ill-will toward Fiers.

It was a weird attempt at a flex from Gattis, who, even with the help of trash cans and technology, hit just .097 with a .129 slugging percentage on offspeed pitches in 2017.

Oof.

[RELATED: Fiers details mentality behind two career no-hitters]

Gattis isn't the only former player to call out Fiers for his whistleblowing, as both Pedro Martinez and David Ortiz criticized the A's right-hander for the way in which he went about it.

Astros manager A.J. Hinch and general manager Jeff Luhnow both were fired after MLB suspended for a season for their role in the rampant cheating.

The season currently is delayed due to the coronavirus pandemic. But when the season does begin, the first meeting between Fiers and his old mates will be one for the books.

A's Mike Fiers details mentality behind throwing two no-hitters in career

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USATSI

A's Mike Fiers details mentality behind throwing two no-hitters in career

Programming note: Relive Mike Fiers' 2019 no-hitter on Saturday, March 28 at 9:30 p.m. on NBC Sports California

The first time it happens, it's impressive. The second? There's something extra there.

A's pitcher Mike Fiers threw the second no-hitter of his career on a chilly May night in Oakland last season against the Reds.

He threw his previous one back when he was with the Astros, against the Dodgers on Aug. 21, 2015.

Two across a career -- he must have been on to something. Sure, it's not the rarest thing to happen in baseball, but when's the last time you threw a no-hitter?

"I just think going in, I'm just trying to limit any damage," Fiers told NBC Sports California at the end of January. "Every inning, just trying to get on and off the field, just make it as easy for the defense as I can and get off the field as quick as possible so those guys can get up there and hit."

Fiers said going into the game, he doesn't anticipate anything that special. He sticks to the same routine every time. He doesn't think about whether the game will end with a zero under the hit section or not. 

"Once the game starts -- and you feel like you've been out there all the time, and you know -- you get the butterflies going and start pitching and it gets late in the game and there's still no hits ... not that you change anything, there's so many factors that got into it," he laughed. "You're just literally trying to put up a zero, for me, I'm not trying to do anything that I can't do."

"And so, when it gets late in the game, some guys get amped up a little bit more, try to throw harder, and you just got to tell yourself, 'Stay within yourself.'"

Fiers credits the attempt to have as much composure as possible in order to maintain some sort of normalcy while everyone on social media is, or isn't, trying to jinx it. 

Is he allowed to get excited? Sure. But there's a certain spot in the game where he thinks it could happen, no matter what other pitchers who have accomplished the feat have said.

"There's always a point," he said. "Some guys say that they don't really know what's going, on or they didn't realize there was a no-hitter until the eighth. It's kind of hard for me to believe because you're out there and you know what's going on -- you should know, it's kind of tough for me to believe that, but for me, you know what's going on, but you don't think 'no-hitter,' and it's the second inning."

[RELATED: Verlander could miss Astros-A's series with lat strain]

"You get through two innings and you're not like 'Oh man I got a no-hitter going,' but I think my judgment is around sixth or seventh inning where you're like, 'We're pretty close now,' you know, six outs, maybe nine outs away -- or one more time through the order."

"Just keep pitching," he said. "Sometimes, it just ends up with no hits."