Jays’ Hendriks follows unlikely path to Toronto

Hendriks allowed three hits and one run over 5.2 innings of work in his Blue Jays debut. (Frank Gunn/CP)

TORONTO — Liam Hendriks had just gotten back to his room at Blue Mountain Resort in Collingwood. He’d left his cell phone there as he spent his day touring around the wintry retreat, enjoying a family Christmas vacation. He swiped it on, connected to his room’s wifi and immediately received an iMessage from a friend who lives in Maryland, saying “congratulations on getting picked up by the Orioles.”

Hendriks thought it had to be a prank. He’d just been claimed off waivers from the Minnesota Twins—the team he began his career with—by the Chicago Cubs ten days earlier. The team had called right after saying how happy they were to have him, boasting about their new spring training facility in Mesa, Arizona. Hendriks was already looking forward to hitting again (he was signed out of Australia in 2007 as a left fielder) and, perhaps more importantly, the added bonus of getting to throw to the opposition pitcher during his outings. His sister and wife had already bought a bevy of Cubs gear to give Hendriks’ parents for Christmas. There was no way.

But upon punching his name into Google the 25-year-old Australian found out he had indeed joined his third MLB club of the month. His phone, still in airplane mode, hadn’t been receiving the numerous calls from his agent.

“It was such an odd off-season,” Hendriks said Tuesday, sitting at his locker in the clubhouse of the Toronto Blue Jays, the fourth team he’s belonged to since December of last year. “I guess you never know what could have been. Everything happens for a reason. And I’m glad to be where I am now because it got me back to the big leagues.”

That circumstance is the only one that matters to Hendriks, who was claimed off waivers by the Blue Jays in late February after the Orioles gave him his third designation for assignment in as many months. It’s been an eventful stretch in Hendriks’ life (he also got married in November), but today he’s pitching at the game’s highest level—he earns his second start for the Blue Jays Thursday night after picking up a win in his Toronto debut last week—where he believes he should be and where many a scout has predicted he’d end up since he was 16 years old playing both ways at the Major League Baseball Australia Academy Program (MLBAAP) in Queensland.

That’s where Hendriks was first discovered. Each year, the 60-80 best players in Australia report to study and play baseball on the country’s picturesque east coast, earning a rare opportunity for Australians taken with baseball to be seen by scouts from teams in North America. Hendriks was identified as a potential star early on, but scouts still had to persuade him from following in the footsteps of his father and pursuing a career as an Australian rules football player.

He’d played on the All-Australian U15’s team and was assured a spot on the U16 team as well, but that opportunity would have interfered with his ability to play in the MLBAAP. Scouts told him that if he switched his focus to baseball he’d have as good an opportunity as anyone on the island to land a contract with an MLB team, but that didn’t stop Hendriks from laying awake in bed at night questioning his decision.

“For me, baseball was purely something to do in the offseason from Aussie rules,” he said. “And I was pretty good at it. That’s what made it so hard. When you grow up with a sport that you watch every day and are around every day and likely have a bright future in, that’s really tough to walk away from.”

But he did and the 18-year-old ended up signing with the Twins for a $170,000 bonus and leaving for the United States, where he immediately started dominating American hitters, striking out 52 and pitching to a 2.05 ERA in 44 rookie ball innings. Having talked to other Australians in the Twins system about pitching on the other side of the world—Minnesota was heavily invested in Aussies at the time, including pitchers Luke Hughes and Brad Tippett, and catcher Allan de San Miguel—Hendriks knew he had to make a good first impression.

“You have to do well right away. Scouts don’t know what you’ve got and haven’t been watching you for long,” Hendriks said.  “So you need to establish yourself really quickly over here and that’ll give you a little bit more breathing room.”

Hendriks has had little trouble doing that at every step of his baseball career save for the majors. Over 629 career minor league innings he has a 2.88 ERA, 7.5 K/9 and a practically absurd 1.5 BB/9 (the MLB average is more than twice that). Just this season in Buffalo he’d allowed only 36 hits and 8 earned runs while walking just three in 48.2 innings.

But a strange thing has happened each time Hendriks has reached the majors—everything falls apart. He allowed 16 runs across 23.1 innings during his debut season with the Twins in 2011. ,He had a more extended stay in 2012, but finished the year with a 5.59 ERA. He was better in limited action in 2013, allowing no more than three runs in five of his eight starts, but still posted a 6.85 ERA and finished the year pitching out of the bullpen. After the season, the Twins designated him for assignment, setting off his turbulent winter.

His first start for the Blue Jays went well (he allowed just a run over 5.2 innings) but several of his outs were made on the warning track and contact pitchers like Hendriks don’t typically have success at Rogers Centre which has given up the third-most home runs of any park in the majors. But in spite of that, Hendriks feels like he’s found something in his approach this year that can turn his major league luck around.

“I was given opportunities in Minnesota and I didn’t capitalize on them. But now I’ve got a different mindset,” Hendriks said. “I’m being more aggressive, I’m getting after guys, I’m getting ahead more often. I’m feeling comfortable on the mound again—which is huge.”

If there’s one thing Hendriks’ time in the game has taught him it’s that you have to make the most of those opportunities. He’s come much further than many would expect of an Australian who didn’t grow up particularly concerned with baseball. And he’s managed to work his way back into a major league rotation despite a string of poor results at the level and a winter spent bouncing around the fringes of MLB rosters. Just like when he first arrived in North America, his rope as the Blue Jays fifth starter likely won’t be long; every outing is imperative.

“I want to make the most of this opportunity. If I do, I don’t think this offseason’s going to be anywhere near as exciting as the last,” Hendriks said, with a knowing look. “Fingers crossed.”

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