Liam Hendriks said he wanted to go six innings on Wednesday, get that quality start and hand it over to the Athletics bullpen to finish it off.
He didn’t crack a smile. But he was definitely joking.
It’s a testament to how much the A’s have flipped the script on baseball that no one in the news conference room at Yankee Stadium on Tuesday afternoon took Hendriks seriously. In the box score, the A’s September reclamation project will go down as the starter in the American League Wild Card game. But in reality, Hendriks probably will go one inning, and hand it off to the bullpen. Or maybe they’ll throw it over to a starter, A’s manager Bob Melvin said, making baseball history as the first team to ever use an opener in a postseason game.
“I'm the one opening,” Hendriks said, his tone wry and very Australian (he’ll be the first Australian-born pitcher to start a playoff game). “Yeah, we like the term opener."
That’s the A’s for you – a team that for years has tried to make up for its small market with big ideas, and has changed the literal language of baseball along the way. It’s a wild ride – and it’ll no doubt be more so during Wednesday’s cage match – and it’s up to the Yankees to keep up.
“We certainly are prepared for that kind of scenario tomorrow, and we know the A's have a ton of really good arms over there that present a lot of challenges for us,” Aaron Boone said, “and we'll just be prepared as best we can to handle that and to succeed.”
It starts with Hendriks, who had eight “starts” to his name in the last month of the season. True to the MacGyver baseball the A’s have adopted, Hendriks starts the biggest game of their season after having been designated for assignment in June, and then sent to Triple-A. There, he said, “if I’m going to do this, I’m going to do it my way, scrapped everything.” He long tossed every day, got his velocity back, and came back to the big club when rosters expanded on Sept. 1. He’s only the fourth pitcher to start a playoff game without a single win in the regular season, according to Elias Sports Bureau.
Hendriks was loose and funny while explaining all of this, trading quips with media and A's closer Blake Treinen, who was on the podium with him. While starters crave routine – Luis Severino said it was tough preparing for the start, because he only found out on Sunday – Hendriks got the news at 10:58 a.m. Tuesday, via text message. “So the conversation was brief,” he said with a verbal shrug.
And flexibility has been tantamount this season. What many purists decry as a gimmick was actually borne of need: Injuries ravaged the A’s rotation, and whatever was left wasn’t enough to sustain a winning season, much less a playoff run. Now, the duct-tape solution has become a permanent fix.
“In today's game, I think there's been a struggle between old-school mentality and sabermetrics, and this is a way to kind of incorporate sabermetrics with effectiveness,” Treinen said. “We have guys in the front office that do a lot of research to put us in the best situations for success, and I think it's our job to put some faith in them. We've got the arms to make this make sense . . .I'm excited to see what this game does because it's kind of a first of its kind, and I think we all fully embrace that.”
To hear them talk about it, teams, it seems, can be a little bit like sharks – if they stop moving, they stop living. The A’s are banking on that so much, they’re staking their entire season on it.
“If you're not constantly striving to be – like get that first foot in, get something in the door just to move forward, I think you're going to stand still, and we're trying some different ways,” Hendriks said. “If there's any other team to do it, it's the A's. We've been ahead of the curve on a whole lot of things, so it's just another way that hopefully we're ahead of the curve, and we'll see how many teams do it next year.”