Liam Hendriks

Liam Hendriks rebounds, breaks Rollie Fingers' A's strikeout record

Liam Hendriks rebounds, breaks Rollie Fingers' A's strikeout record

OAKLAND -- One of baseball's most common clichés is that relief pitchers need to have a short memory. A's closer Liam Hendriks has a slightly different variation of that rule.

"I don't know if it's a short memory or just have a really bad memory," he joked Tuesday.

Hendriks suffered a rare blown save in Monday's loss to the Kansas City Royals but bounced back with a dominant ninth inning Tuesday night, as the A's picked up a 2-1 win. 

"I spoke to my wife about it last night," Hendriks told NBC Sports California. "Everything felt good, but it didn't feel good, if that makes any sense. My ball felt light, and that's abnormal for me when I'm going out there.

"But I worked on it a little bit today, made sure I got my legs under me a little bit, and the results were there. I was able to throw some good breaking balls when I needed to and kept them off balance enough where, if I left a fastball in a bad spot, they were able to miss it because I had set them up."

Added A's manager Bob Melvin: "It's very rare when Liam blows a save. He's been great for us all year. So it was good to get him right back in there."

Hendriks set the Royals down in order in the ninth, recording a pair of strikeouts to give him 118 for the season, with 116 coming as a reliever. That broke the A's record for strikeouts by a relief pitcher, previously held by Hall of Famer Rollie Fingers, who had 115 in 1975.

"It was cool," Hendriks said. "It's not something I started the year out after, but as it kept getting closer, I was a little bit aware of it. ... Anytime you get talked about in the same sentence as Rollie Fingers, it's a pretty big deal. I'm just happy to bounce back from last night. Obviously, last night wasn't the best situation for me, but I came back and had that vigor again and was able to put it to bed."

[RELATED: How A's Wendelken has earned Melvin's trust in big spots]

Hendriks has enjoyed a breakout season at the age of 30. The right-hander is 4-3 with 23 saves and a 1.66 ERA with those 118 strikeouts in 81 1/3 innings.

"(The strikeout) is his biggest weapon," Melvin said. "It gets him out of jams with guys on base. He's got a much better slider to keep them off his fastball. His fastball (velocity) is the best it's been in his career. But I think that the command of his breaking ball allows his fastball to play up and he's been striking guys out all year."

With all of the bullpen struggles Oakland has experienced this season, Hendriks has been a godsend. His ninth-inning dominance has allowed the A's to remain in the driver's seat for a second straight postseason berth.

How A's bullpen will dictate team's MLB playoffs destiny come October

How A's bullpen will dictate team's MLB playoffs destiny come October

Bob Melvin is exhausting his bullpen not because he wants to but because, as the manager, he has to. More than any other factor, it is the ‘pen that will guide this A’s team to its destiny.

The latest example came Thursday night in Houston. After starter Homer Bailey left in the sixth inning, Melvin needed 11 more outs to secure a win. He turned to five different relievers.

After taking the ball from Bailey, Melvin first went to lefthander Jake Diekman, who then handed it to Yusmeiro Petit, who then gave it to A.J. Puk, who then gave it to Blake Treinen, who then flipped it to closer Liam Hendriks, who ended matters with a whistling fastball past a gazing Michael Brantley.

That delivered a pulsating 3-2 victory over Astros ace Justin Verlander, allowed the A’s to take three of four games in the most imposing home yard in the American League and also moved them into the No. 1 wild-card spot for the first time this season.

On this night, the ‘pen was Melvin’s salvation, warming hearts in the clubhouse and across the fan base.

If the bullpen holds up, there will be October baseball in Oakland, and more than one game. Everything else about this club has been reasonably reliable, if not downright remarkable.

The frequent home runs – seven players have at least 20 bombs; 12 more would set a franchise record – are awe-inspiring, an impressive show of muscle. They light up the scoreboard, energize the dugout, build leads, wipe out deficits and deliver the occasional walk-off victory.

No real worries here.

The A’s have the surest gloves in the league, with first baseman Matt Olson, third baseman Matt Chapman and shortstop Marcus Semien having particularly stellar seasons. Fielding has not always been properly appreciated in Oakland, but this group is proving its importance.

No real worries here. At all.

The starting pitching has been better than it looks. Dominating performances have been few, but Oakland’s 73 quality starts rank fifth among MLB’s 30 teams. Sean Manaea, the most gifted established starter, has been almost unhittable in his first two starts since returning from shoulder surgery.

Oakland is, with good reason, as confident as it is formidable. The A’s believe in themselves and can find proof in their 10-4 record against the Astros and Yankees over the past four weeks. More to the point, their 68-35 record since May 14 trails only the East-leading Yankees (73-35) and is two games better than that of the West-leading Astros (67-38).

The A’s are a season-high 27 games over .500 as they float into north Texas for a three-game weekend series against the mediocre (74-74) Rangers, their opponent in six of the last 15 games. The other opponents are the definition of deficient: The Royals (three games), the Angels (two) and the Mariners (four).

But one of the lessons learned while reporting and commenting on hundreds of baseball games over the years is that no part of a contending team dictates fortunes quite like its bullpen. A good ‘pen adds points to the manager’s IQ, while a bad one subtracts from it.

A great bullpen wins championships.

Which brings us back to Melvin’s dilemma. His bullpen is good, but it also has an MLB-high 28 saves. It might be better if it weren’t so burdened. Of the six pitchers with the most appearances in the A.L., four are A’s. Joakim Soria is sixth, with 66 appearances. Hendriks is tied for third with 68, Diekman is second with 69 and Petit is first, with 73 – roughly every other game.

Though these foreboding numbers are somewhat mitigated by relatively short stints, they still indicate a heavy load.

Plenty of worries here.

The A’s last season, preparing for a playoff run, stacked their bullpen with veterans, collecting closers from teams without hope. Jeurys Familia from the Mets. Fernando Rodney from the Twins. They were setup men, handing off to Lou Trivino, who was solid, and Treinen, who was sensational as the closer.

Oakland’s postseason lasted one game, in which both Rodney and Treinen were abused.

[RELATED: A's make a statement to rest of MLB by winning final three vs. Astros]

This time around, the A’s decided to sit tight, adding only Diekman. There is more depth among the starters and also more trust.

But make no mistake, the fate of the A’s lies with their bullpen. It will, in the end, either warm hearts or break them.

A's Liam Hendriks details journey from DFA'd to All-Star in documentary

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USATSI

A's Liam Hendriks details journey from DFA'd to All-Star in documentary

It was one of the first days of spring training in Mesa, Ariz. this season where I met Liam Hendriks for the first time.

Director of Baseball Communications Fernando Alcala introduced me to the Australia native who was sipping on his Starbucks cup of coffee -- a sight I had grown accustomed to seeing each time I saw him in the A's clubhouse ... or on a Thursday night in Houston. 

Alcala told me he was easy to talk to, and he wasn't lying. The A's reliever received the first All-Star selection of his career this season but has remained humble throughout the entire process. Perhaps because before he was the dominant closer in his current state, he was just a guy hoping to find a home after being designated for assignment multiple times: Five to be exact.

"I don't think I ever doubted myself like, performance-wise, but there are definitely times where I put a ceiling on myself," Hendriks said during Momentum's latest installment: "Resiliency: The Road to Becoming an All-Star." 

In the video, Hendriks detailed his journey from wanting to be "an average starter" to becoming one of the most feared pitchers coming out of the bullpen.

The story began with clips from an outing in which he was removed from the second inning of a game while with the Toronto Blue Jays in 2013 after giving up a walk to Reds' first baseman Joey Votto.

Hendriks would finish that season with a 6.85 ERA.

Hendriks admitted the few times he was demoted were difficult to handle since in all actuality it was foreign territory -- he had never been sent down before. And despite his Triple-A success, the calls for him to return to The Show weren't happening, at least not for him anyway.

"They kept calling a couple of guys up ahead of me," Hendriks said. 

It was a wakeup call. Perhaps he wasn't "that guy." But it was a humbling experience he explained.

Hendriks and his wife Kristi discussed the "what if's" should this long-time journey not work out. Playing in Korea and Japan were options -- so much so, a team had made an offer.

Fast forward to 2015 and Hendriks could be seen soaked in alcohol and wearing a Jays' postseason-bound t-shirt with goggles atop his head.

He was celebrating.

This celebration was more than enjoying libations with his teammates even though during his interview with Sportsnet, he made it about them. 

He was back.

Hendriks would eventually be traded to the A's for Jesse Chavez following the 2015 season. He once again found himself sporting postseason garb sitting next to Blake Treinen during a press conference a few years later.

When asked how he felt following his journey of times when he didn't feel quite good enough, Hendriks simply said he was happy to be a part of the team -- a typical Hendriks answer.

"Anytime athletes are faced with their own mortality, it can be an earth-shattering, life-altering experience, that frankly, some guys never rebound from," NBC Sports Calfornia's Dallas Braden said. "But Hendriks has been there, done that just as much as anyone could go through, so it's merely a hurdle, and it's probably the height of a curb in his mind to be designated for assignment. That has no doubt served him as well as it has to transition into the role he's transitioned into especially on the heels of facing that mortality to the tune of five times."

Hendriks would earn American League Reliever of the Month honors this season after a June where he boasted a 0.60 ERA with 22 strikeouts in 15 innings. And the secret behind his success? Going back to his original plan.

"I think last year going down and coming back up was huge for me because it gave me the chance of like 'Look, I need to stop doing what everyone does well -- I need to stop thinking about what they can beat me with -- I need to start thinking about what I can beat them with," Hendriks added.

It was a huge mindset for him. He had to get that arrogant streak back, something Hendriks said as a pitcher was important. 

[RELATED: A's make history against Houston Astros]

In July, Hendriks became just the third Australian to be selected to a Major League All-Star team.

As the end of the film neared, the music lifted. 

This wouldn't be the last time Hendriks would sport an All-Star uniform ... not if he had anything to say about it.