By: Alexis Brudnicki
Canadian Baseball Network
MESA, Arizona – As Liam Hendriks headed into spring training with the Oakland Athletics this year, plenty of excitement had already been happening on the diamond in his native Australia.
After the Australian Baseball League season came to a close in February, members of the national team travelled to Sydney for the World Baseball Classic Qualifier, where the Southern Thunder took on New Zealand, South Africa and the Philippines to earn a spot in next year’s tournament.
“Coming into the series we were expected to pretty much run through everybody,” Hendriks said of Team Australia. “You almost have that pressure on yourself that it’s expected, so if it doesn’t happen it’s negative and if it does it’s expected. I watched the games and there were some times where things didn’t look so good a couple of times but they responded well. The good thing about our Australian team is we’ve got really good depth compared to the other teams that were there.
“That was the biggest difference in the end – you look at South Africa in the championship game and they just ran out of guys. That’s just part and parcel of how it goes. They ran out of arms and we still had a couple of quality guys left up there. So hopefully all the guys who are over here can put their best foot forward and go out there next year and do it, and hopefully advance to the second round for the first time.”
Watching his countrymen qualify from afar, the 27-year-old right-hander is excited about the opportunity to suit up in the green-and-gold uniform next March at the World Baseball Classic, hoping for a chance to contribute on the world stage alongside his Aussie teammates.
“There’s never any doubt that Australians want to play for their country,” Hendriks said. “It’s one of the biggest honours you can have as an Australian, that’s what you strive for. A lot of guys in their baseball careers over there strive to get to the big leagues, but they strive to play for their country. That’s how the entire country is with any sport.
“It’s such an honour to be able to put your country’s name on your back or your front. It’s just such an awesome experience. I’m happy to have been able to do it a couple times and I’m excited about doing it again. When you get those guys coming out, we have this camaraderie going. These guys have come up and we’ve had the same core group for years now.
“We’ve had those same guys and they can now teach the younger guys who are there, and hopefully they can progress those younger guys to a point where they can just take over and nobody will bat an eye just because they’re doing the same job. That’s the goal, they’re trying to nurture the young guys and push them forward. There are some young guys on that team and the younger the guys, the better the sport of baseball is going to be doing in Australia.”
Looking to help the sport down under, Major League Baseball expanded its worldwide initiatives this year to include financing a trip for a group of Aussies aged 15 to 18 to Florida for spring training, to match up against professional and international competition in St. Petersburg. Excited to see young players get opportunities he never had, Hendriks believes it can only assist the national program move forward.
“It would have been awesome,” he said. “I don’t even think I ever made an Australian juniors team. There was one tournament where there were only two guys who hadn’t signed professional contracts who went, and obviously I was a little bit younger at that point. And then there were a couple other times where I got hurt and missed out.
“I was disappointed when I found out they weren’t coming to Arizona but it’s a great experience. You get to get out there, you get to throw, you get to be on spring training fields, you get to be around some of the guys. There are a couple of Australians still out in Florida now at spring training so hopefully they can help them out a little bit…
“It will be interesting to see how that goes and if it can become a recurring thing, try to get a group of guys coming out here for spring training every year – just play and get away from everything and focus on baseball solely. You’ve got guys who have big-league experience now coaching those teams.
“It’s going to be a learning curve for everybody and hopefully it goes well and things run smoothly and we can come back and do it again in future years and they can come to Arizona where all the teams are close and they can go to a few teams and games here and there. And hopefully there are a couple more Australians down here so we can do something with the Australian guys as well.”
Representing his home continent year after year as one of only 31 Australians to have ever made it to the major leagues, and one of far fewer currently playing in the show, the Perth native heads into his season with Oakland following a fantastic year with the Toronto Blue Jays.
Hendriks posted a 2.92 ERA over 58 games and 64 2/3 innings, walking just 11 and striking out 71 in the regular season, adding five innings in the playoffs for the American League East division champions, who were eventually eliminated by the Kansas City Royals in the American League Championship Series.
“There were a lot of fun experiences,” Hendriks said. “The group of guys over there was awesome. We had a very good mix, and at the [trade] deadline, the guys who came in just came in seamlessly. It was a really good fit. So I don’t know if there was ever just one moment, one game, where everything kind of clicked, but the year as a whole we had a lot of fun.
“Of course, that second half with the new guys, it was a very good group of guys who were all around each other. I got a chance to learn from LaTroy Hawkins and Mark Lowe. Bullpen stuff is still kind of new to me, and any chance I get to be able to pick the brains of guys who have been doing this a long time or have gone through something similar to me is a huge plus.”
Blindsided by the off-season trade that sent him to the Athletics, Hendriks is excited for another opportunity to join a new organization and learn from a brand new group of teammates.
“I really enjoyed last year,” he said. “I loved the city, I loved the country – I love Canada. My wife [Kristi] is half Canadian and I’m a huge Montreal Canadiens fan so I loved being in Canada, I loved being in a hockey town, it was an awesome experience. But I’m excited to be here.
“The trade shocked me a little bit. I wasn’t anticipating it. I hadn’t heard anything about my name or anything like that, but I’m excited to be here. It’s a good group of guys. There are a few new guys and I get a chance to learn from a couple guys who have some closing experience in [Ryan] Madson and [John] Axford and [Sean] Doolittle so I’m excited for that.”
Unsure of what his role might be in Oakland, and gaining experience from being utilized in different situations last year with the Blue Jays, Hendriks is ready for anything and is more prepared than ever.
“When I first came over, it was going to be more of a later-inning role, and then obviously we signed another couple guys, so it will be interesting to see what happens,” Hendriks said. “I think Madson and Doolittle are slotted into the eighth and ninth innings and then there’s me, Axford, [Marc] Rzepczynski, Fernando Rodriguez – we’re all in the mix for whatever role.
“We’ve all got our own special abilities – Rzepczynski’s a lefty specialist, you’ve got Fernando who last year led the league with [fewest] inherited runners scored or something like that, so we’ve got a good group of guys here. With a healthy Doolittle and a couple of additions, this bullpen is going to be one of our strengths this year…
“I mean, I’d like a bit of a defined role but at the end of the day if it happens, it happens. If not, it’s kind of like last year was. I got there and I got ready to pitch every day. If they call down and it’s me, I get ready to go into the game and do what I can.”